Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for July, 2022

Instagram Is QVC 2.0

Meta, which still publishes at fb.com for some reason:

When you’re chatting with a qualified small business on Instagram, you’ll now be able to make purchases without leaving the chat. For example, if you’re interested in a backpack, all you have to do is send a message to the business about the one you love. From there, you can chat about customizations — like adding your initials — and then place your order right in the chat. In that same chat thread, you’ll also be able to track your order and ask the business any follow-up questions. Finally, you’ll be able to use Meta Pay to complete purchases, making checkout even easier in just a few taps. And you can shop with confidence knowing that your payments are securely processed and your purchases are protected.

This, among a laundry list of other changes, has led Om Malik to declare “Instagram is dead”:

What’s left is a constantly mutating product that copies features from whatever popular service — Snapchat, TikTok, or whatever. It is all about marketing and pushing substandard products and mediocre services pushed by influencers with less depth than a sheet of paper.

It has become QVC 2.0.

The first explanation actually makes the most sense for Instagram’s post-acquisition history and its near future. It is increasingly clear Meta has no clue what to do to make Instagram better, so it treats it as an empty shell into which it pours its clone of the latest trend. Meta has no vision for Instagram. The social network has served its purpose to grow a captive user base; now, every corner and every page is being wrung for every dollar it contains. There are more ads, more ways to buy stuff, and more opportunities for people with large audiences to monetize.

Seriously — what does Instagram look like a decade from now? Who is its target audience? What is it for? Does Adam Mosseri have any idea? Is this something we can only know when we see whatever app is trendy nine years from now?

Craig Mod [sic]:

instagram but just for looking at photographs

That sounds nice.

Facebook Has Started Encrypting Links to Counter Browser Privacy Efforts

Martin Brinkmann, Ghacks:

Facebook has started to use a different URL scheme for site links to combat URL stripping technologies that browsers such as Firefox or Brave use to improve privacy and prevent user tracking.

[…]

Since it is no longer possible to identify the tracking part of the web address, it is no longer possible to remove it from the address automatically. In other words: Facebook has the upper hand in regards to URL-based tracking at the time, and there is little that can be done about it short of finding a way to decrypt the information.

This reminds me of how Google was fined by the FTC for ignoring Safari users’ preferences to avoid tracking because it felt entitled to tracking by default. Criteo and AdRoll later did something similar but were not investigated or penalized. This adversarial relationship between users and privacy-destroying businesses will continue so long as the latter are permitted to exploit the former. Scumbag companies are finding new and creative ways to keep being scumbags instead of trying to be ethical.

A 14-Inch MacBook Pro and a Few Thoughts

The 2021 14-inch MacBook Pro into which I am typing these words is arguably the best computer Apple has ever made. It is not as powerful as the Mac Studio or Mac Pro, not as elegant as the MacBook Air, and not the best value in Apple’s line — which, again, is probably the MacBook Air. But it manages to get nearly everything great about those other Macs in a package that is smaller in profile than the computer it replaces in my world.

That is no small feat, by the way. The 2012 MacBook Air I have been using daily for the past ten years is certainly nowhere near as capable as this MacBook Pro by any stretch. But it was my main Mac for seven of those years, accompanying me from my last years in college on journeys across a few continents. It deserves its high ranking on Six Colors’ 20 Macs for 2020 list.

And it is a good thing, too, I bought such a capable laptop in 2012, because I mostly got to avoid the Mac’s flop years. The Touch Bar? I see why people like it, but Apple’s enthusiasm for it quickly waned and it was not for me. The butterfly keyboard? I would love to learn the inside story of what happened there, which will slowly trickle out as the lawsuit unfolds and knowledgeable people are able to speak out.1

But the Mac is back — or, it has been for quite some time, but I had not experienced it until now. And there have been some notable positive changes in the time since I last bought one of Apple’s laptops. The construction of this Mac is flawless. I thought my MacBook Air had a confidence-inspiring quality to its construction, but this MacBook Pro is in a league of its own. It strikes a balance between feeling durable and delicate. Everything that is supposed to feel solid does not move, not even a little; every part that is interactive, like the keyboard and display hinge, feels like it accomplishes its task without any ill effects.

This display is magnificent. I thought I knew Retina displays — I have a 5K iMac on my desk — but this feels like a fuller expression of that idea. One little thing Apple keeps getting better about is matching the display’s brightness and colour temperature to the environment. My iMac is pretty good about the former — it cannot do True Tone trickery — but this display feels increasingly closer to something that reads more like coated paper than it does a computer screen.

Alas, there is a notch. This is my first Mac with one and I can see why some deride it. I do not like it, but nor do I hate it. It is an obvious compromise for getting a webcam into a portable Mac with the smallest possible footprint. If I could spec this MacBook Pro without a webcam — or if it had Face ID — I would find it more acceptable. My dislike of it is almost entirely cosmetic, but that is also true for the solution to removing it: equalize the displays around the bezel. That would necessitate either a larger device footprint or a smaller display, both of which I regard as less desirable compromises for a portable Mac. It is not the best look, but it is the best compromise for me.

Like Michael Tsai, I have not been completely bowled over by the performance of this Mac, nor have I been amazed by its battery life — but I mean that in the best possible sense. This Mac is like the Swiss train network, of which I am once again envious after watching Jason Slaughter’s latest video: it is so efficient and delightful that it is best expressed because of what it does not do. There are no delays, no hangups, no surprise battery consumption warnings, no stutters, and no ill behaviours. Everything just goes. Even the performance issues I see with Safari’s UI on my top-of-the-line iMac are gone.2 I have by no means been trying to find its limits, but it feels limitless in every application I have thrown at it. That is amazing in its own way.

And I have not once heard it. There are apparently two fans spinning away below this keyboard, but I cannot hear them when I put my ear to the case. When I was transferring files last week, my MacBook Air was doing its best to make a deafening racket, like it was screaming for me that it still had plenty of life left in it. This MacBook Pro? Just quietly sipping electricity and flipping bits on its drive in perfect silence. Any noises made by this MacBook Pro are drowned out by the sound of background radiation. It is that quiet. It is an exquisite experience.

The hardware is amazing — but you already knew that because the first reviews for this computer were published about eight months ago. The software? Well, that is almost exactly the same. Rosetta works fine, though I have waited long enough to upgrade to an ARM Mac that only a handful of apps I use are unavailable in ARM native guise. There also seems to be a single system process — CarbonComponentScannerXPC — that remains an always-running Intel app. Strange.

There are a handful of features in MacOS specific to either this laptop or ARM Macs generally. The menu bar is taller to accommodate the notch. I prefer this style primarily because the rounded rectangle selection highlight has some space between the top and bottom of the menu bar. On a notchless Mac, the rectangle’s edges touch the top and bottom of the menu bar and, thanks to the rounded corners, it looks uncomfortable and cramped. I like how the corners of the selection highlight round more aggressively for the Apple menu and the clock, matching the radius of the display.

Other things specific to ARM Macs include AirPlay receiver support (Update: Nope, just not on my iMac.), a globe in Maps, and support for iPhone and iPad apps on MacOS. The latter reminds me of running iOS apps in the Simulator. These are not blockbuster features yet — at least, not for the way I use my Mac.

Otherwise, it feels familiar. All the stuff I use is here; all the bugs that interrupt my workflow are basically the same.

But all of this is running on hardware that feels familiar but different. A MagSafe connection is back — why Apple got rid of that in the first place I will never know, but those flop years hit them hard. I do not need the HDMI port, but I am thrilled this Mac has an SD card slot, making it a perfect companion for anyone who travels with a digital camera besides their smartphone. TouchID is excellent, the keyboard and trackpad are pretty much perfect, and the speakers sound better than they have any right to in a package this small and thin.

This is a professional product worthy of the “MacBook Pro” moniker. I look forward to spending the next decade with it by my side.


  1. Not necessarily a hint, but not not a hint either. ↩︎

  2. Safari is slow to visually become active or inactive (FB9735993) and dialogs for save, open, and print all drop frames when they draw. Mind you, I should not need to be using one of the fastest Macs ever made to see a print dialog appear smoothly. ↩︎

Amazon Is Funding the Faux Grassroots ‘Competitiveness Coalition’

Emily Birnbaum, Bloomberg (via Michael Tsai):

A group fighting antitrust legislation targeting the biggest US tech companies presents itself as a grassroots advocate for American taxpayers, yet it hasn’t disclosed a significant source of funding from one of the industry’s giants: Amazon.com Inc.

The Competitiveness Coalition, led by Scott Brown, a former Republican senator from Massachusetts, has received more than $1 million from Amazon, according to three people familiar with the organization’s funding.

The Competitiveness Coalition’s website features a form allowing it to send an email on your behalf to someone — presumably your representatives based on your ZIP code. The pre-filled email claims proposed regulation intended to curtail the influence of the largest online platforms is “straight out of the Chinese Communist Party playbook”. This is not so different from the language used by Facebook’s front group, American Edge, which claims antitrust regulation will “ultimately hand victory to China”.

This concern comes across as little more than xenophobic fearmongering from think tanks and their corporate backers. It is the same strategy they use to avoid taxes and labour laws, playing different countries and states after each other in a race to the bottom. Massive American companies are dominant in the tech industry. It is stunning to see how fragile they believe they are when faced with even moderate regulatory pressure. Lawmakers should be appropriately cautious of unintended effects, but not cowed by a third Red Scare fuelled by faux advocacy firms seeking unaccountable and unregulated industry sectors.

Geraldine DeRuiter Tried Twenty-One Flavours of Mountain Dew for Some Reason

Geraldine DeRuiter:

What followed was a journey deep into beverage purgatory, a strange sort of limbo where things taste like nothing but sugar, occasionally like bubble gum, and invariably like defeat. The focus groups for these products consisted of a cardboard cut out of Randy “Macho-Man” Savage and a beer koozie that says “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For Titties”. I have listed the flavors in no particular order because there is no ranking system here. They are almost all equally bad, and half of them are the same drink. It is an egalitarian system of suckiness, wherein even the best variant of Mtn Dew is still just Mtn Dew. Also, “Mtn” isn’t even how you abbreviate the word “mountain.”

I will just have water, thanks.

‘Hard Pass’ on Plan to Let Political Emails Bypass Spam Filters

Ashley Belanger, Ars Technica:

Earlier this month, Google sent a request to the Federal Election Commission seeking an advisory opinion on the potential launch of a pilot program that would allow political committees to bypass spam filters and instead deliver political emails to the primary inboxes of Gmail users. During a public commenting period that’s still ongoing, most people commenting have expressed staunch opposition for various reasons that they’re hoping the FEC will consider.

It seems clever and right of Google to use the Federal Election Campaign Act and put this before a public opinion test instead of making the change to spam filters themselves. The results speak for themselves: of the forty-eight emails the FEC has received about the issue, only two want Google to allow emails to escape spam filters when they are sent by political parties. I cannot say it any better than Elena Simon did (PDF) in their email to the FEC:

If I filter a politicians email spam or their terrible email doesn’t make it thru Gmail’s filters, let it stay that way. And shame on y’all for literally giving public comment the weekend to chime in.

After some communication problems from the FEC, it turns out the comment period runs until this Saturday, July 16. If you want to voice your opinion on whether politicians should get a free pass for spam, send a message to ao@fec.gov regarding AO 2022-14.

Update: Look at this collection of emails the Trump campaign sends subscribers. I know all political emails are kind of scummy to some degree, but these are next level:

Friend, We hate to do this, but your Official 2022 Trump Gold Cardholder status is INACTIVE, according to our membership records. […]

Why, oh why, are messages like these getting flagged as spam?

Nikon and Canon to Stop Making DSLRs

An un-bylined report from Nikkei:

Japanese camera maker Nikon will withdraw from the single-lens reflex camera business and shift toward digital offerings amid intensifying competition from smartphone cameras, Nikkei has learned.

[…]

Since June 2020, when Nikon launched its flagship D6 SLR, no new SLR models have been released. The company has already stopped development of compact digital cameras.

[…]

Rival Canon also plans to follow Nikon and stop producing SLRs within a few years.

Nikon hinted at this months ago.

It is hard to believe we are entering an era where a pro photography studio can be silent. It is probably the case at many places — I am out of touch — but the studio in my mind’s experiences has always sounded like energetic music punctuated by camera flashes and the sound of a swinging mirror shutter.

I suppose this is inevitable. There are clearly myriad reasons why mirrorless systems have basically taken over, with battery life remaining one of few significant DSLR advantages. Still, it is hard to shake the part of me that associates professional photography with an SLR-style camera.

Marriott Hacked, Again

Yesterday, I linked to an article from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission claiming that it is actually really serious about cracking down on privacy violations, citing several laws it apparently has at its disposal. But that was all of one day ago.

Karl Bode, Techdirt:

Case in point: Marriott revealed the company had been compromised for the third time in the last seven years or so. This time around, hackers managed to grab 20 gigabytes of valuable customer data, including credit card numbers and other personally identifiable information, by tricking an employee into giving them access to their computer.

[…]

Here’s the thing, though. Hackers had already breached the hotel chain in 2014, gaining access to 340 million guest records planet wide. That hack wasn’t even revealed until 2018, at which point Marriott saw a $123 million fine its lawyers were able to talk down to $24 million. Another 5.2 million guests had their data breached in another 2020 attack. Lawsuits for the first, 8 year old hack are still ongoing.

While the first breach affected hotel patrons worldwide, Marriott was only fined by European regulators via the United Kingdom. The FTC acknowledged Marriott’s failure to secure sensitive data from guests — including passport numbers and credit card details — but did not issue a fine. In May — yeah, just two months ago — a judge permitted a lawsuit against Marriott and Accenture. Marriott will, in all likelihood, face financial penalties for this breach, but it is not because of regulators.

That paragraph I just wrote is entirely about the 2014–2018 breach. There are, now, another two breaches Marriott must answer for. Is each one of those going to become a class action lawsuit in which this one company may pay some compensation while regulators ignore the industry at large? That would be idiotic. But it is hard to know whether there is anything the FTC can do when the laws it has to enforce privacy and security failures are so limited in scope.

Rooting for Nothing

After many months of teasers and hints, the Nothing Phone 1 is official. It shamelessly borrows hardware cues from recent iPhone models and runs Android, but it is an interesting experiment that reminds me of the Essential Phone.

Chris Hannah:

I want this phone to exist in a wide marketplace of different offerings from various companies. I want devices that exist to have a bit of character, not just be a minimal slab of glass with a generic camera square at the back. I think there should be loads of smaller niche devices that cater more towards certain markets or tastes. Because if everything is the same, then it’s just boring.

Matt Birchler:

I’m rooting for the Nothing phone as well, even though it’s not for me.

I have long loved the idea of a more boutique, limited-run smartphone brand. The smartphone market would be a more interesting place if there were a couple dozen companies each making phones for a few million people, instead of a handful of companies making products for hundreds of millions.

I am hopeful but skeptical. While I am rooting for Nothing, it feels destined for a similar fate as Essential, which discontinued its phone a little over a year after its release and shut down entirely in February 2020. There are so many advantages to making a phone at massive scale that, unfortunately, it is hard for a smaller company to compete at any level.

The Nothing looks like an intriguing entry. Unlike the Essential, it is not trying to fit into the premium market with a high price tag. It is more modest and lighthearted, especially with those lights on the back. According to a video from Tom Honeyands, it runs close-to-stock Android and Nothing is promising three years of OS updates plus a further year of security updates. But is it unique enough to persuade people to buy its simple glass-and-metal rectangle instead of sticking with a brand they already know — or, at least, enough people to keep the company running long enough to deliver its promised software update schedule?

Scam Calls and Emails Are Costing People More Than Money and Time

Heather Kelly, Washington Post:

Pamela McCarroll doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring phone calls from unknown numbers.

The 30-year old is undergoing treatment for long-term colon cancer in Fairfax County, Va., and never knows whether it could be a doctor, a hospital with test results, or someone trying to schedule an appointment.

Unfortunately, that means she’s fielding up to 20 spam phone calls every day on her mobile phone, adding to her already sky-high levels of stress. Since her diagnosis in August 2019, the number of scam attempts has shot up while the topics have gotten strangely specific, including Medicare or senior benefits.

It is infuriating to see how marketing networks exploit vulnerable people on both sides of a call to make some extremely dirty money. We all lose.

Giving a Shit as a Service

Allen Pike:

In some ways, that’s the fundamental value proposition of a small boutique, whether it be a furniture shop or a software studio. Giving a shit as a service. Sure, you can always get a commodity good from off the shelf – when you’re selling soybean oil by the 100 ton lot, nobody wants to have a conversation with you about the subtle flavour profiles of different bean oils. But sometimes, you want to buy from someone that’s obsessed about the final product.

The most impressive trick is to pull this off at scale. Giving a shit about the interaction every person has with a medium- or large-scale product is the kind of thing very few vendors have the conviction to do. People remember how they felt even when they do not remember specific moments. That is also true for products and services.

FTC Promises Crackdown on Illegal Misuse of Health Information and Ostensibly De-Identified Data

Kristin Cohen, of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission:

The conversation about technology tends to focus on benefits. But there is a behind-the-scenes irony that needs to be examined in the open: the extent to which highly personal information that people choose not to disclose even to family, friends, or colleagues is actually shared with complete strangers. These strangers participate in the often shadowy ad tech and data broker ecosystem where companies have a profit motive to share data at an unprecedented scale and granularity.

This sounds promising. Cohen says the FTC is ready to take action against companies and data brokers misusing health information, in particular, in a move apparently spurred or accelerated by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. So what is the FTC proposing?

[…] There are numerous state and federal laws that govern the collection, use, and sharing of sensitive consumer data, including many enforced by the Commission. The FTC has brought hundreds of cases to protect the security and privacy of consumers’ personal information, some of which have included substantial civil penalties. In addition to Section 5 of the FTC Act, which broadly prohibits unfair and deceptive trade practices, the Commission also enforces the Safeguards Rule, the Health Breach Notification Rule, and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule.

I am no lawyer, so it would be ridiculous for me to try to interpret these laws. But what is there sure seems limited in scope — in order: personal information entrusted to financial companies, security breaches of health records, and children under 13 years old. This seems like the absolute bottom rung on the ladder of concerns. It is obviously good that the FTC is reiterating its enforcement capabilities, though revealing of its insipid authority, but what is it about those laws which will permit it to take meaningful action against the myriad anti-privacy practices covered by over-broad Terms of Use agreements?

Companies may try to placate consumers’ privacy concerns by claiming they anonymize or aggregate data. Firms making claims about anonymization should be on guard that these claims can be a deceptive trade practice and violate the FTC Act when untrue. Significant research has shown that “anonymized” data can often be re-identified, especially in the context of location data. One set of researchers demonstrated that, in some instances, it was possible to uniquely identify 95% of a dataset of 1.5 million individuals using four location points with timestamps. Companies that make false claims about anonymization can expect to hear from the FTC.

Many digital privacy advocates have been banging this drum for years. Again, I am glad to see it raised as an issue the FTC is taking seriously. But given the exuberant data broker market, how can any company that collects dozens or hundreds of data points honestly assert their de-identified data cannot be associated with real identities?

The only solution is for those companies to collect less user data and to pass even fewer points onto brokers. But will the FTC be given the tools to enforce this? Its funding is being increased significantly, so it will hopefully be able to make good on its cautionary guidance.

NYT: Apple Ends Consulting Agreement With Jony Ive

Tripp Mickle, New York Times:

Mr. Ive and Apple have agreed to stop working together, according to two people with knowledge of their contractual agreement, ending a three-decade run during which the designer helped define every rounded corner of an iPhone and guided development of its only new product category in recent years, the Apple Watch.

This news comes just a day after the publication of a lengthy report about Apple’s car project, in which Wayne Ma of the Information claims Ive’s firm has been an active consultant on its design.

Update: In a profile of Ive’s association with the Terra Carta Design Lab, published yesterday, Deyan Sudjic of Wallpaper also says Apple is a LoveFrom client. Mickle’s scoop feels like it is from a very recent tmeframe; he writes of a decision made in “recent weeks”.

Also from Sudjic’s article:

When Ive talks about design, his language is fiercely moralistic. ‘I am angry that most of what is made seems so thoughtless. So many products do not deserve to exist. The minimum that they should do to justify themselves and consume all that material is that their designers should care about them.’

See also the “giving a shit” piece I linked to today.

Migration Assistant Magic

John Siracusa briefly mentioned something in one of his podcasts that stuck with me and I want to get it in writing for future reference. Ideally, I would like to link back to where I heard this. The problem is that I cannot remember which episode or even which podcast — though I think it was Reconcilable Differences — for full acknowledgement, and neither podcast has a searchable text transcript.

The situation here is that you are moving from an old Mac to a new one, and you have reached the point in Setup Assistant where it asks if you want to transfer data. You agree, it opens Migration Assistant on your new Mac — you open it manually on your old one — and then it runs a few tests in the background to automatically select the fastest transfer method.

In my case, this was peer-to-peer at a painfully slow three-to-six megabytes per second. To move the half-million files from my old Mac, it was looking like a twelve hour operation. But I remembered I had a first-generation Thunderbolt cable laying around and an adaptor — and the tip Siracusa relayed in that podcast episode: Migration Assistant will automatically switch to the fastest method available, even partway through a migration.

So I plugged it in to both Macs and, I kid you not, all my stuff was moved over to the new Mac in the time it took me to boil water and brew a coffee. Remember, this was with a first-generation Thunderbolt connection. Imagine how much faster this could be if you upgrade your Mac more often than I do.

Thanks, John.

Update: The segment where Siracusa discusses this begins around the 32 minute mark in Accidental Tech Podcast episode 485. Thanks to David Anson for pointing me in the right direction.

Cache of Documents From Uber’s Travis Kalanick Years Reveal Exactly What You Expect

Harry Davies, et al., the Guardian:

The unprecedented leak to the Guardian of more than 124,000 documents – known as the Uber files – lays bare the ethically questionable practices that fuelled the company’s transformation into one of Silicon Valley’s most famous exports.

The leak spans a five-year period when Uber was run by its co-founder Travis Kalanick, who tried to force the cab-hailing service into cities around the world, even if that meant breaching laws and taxi regulations.

During the fierce global backlash, the data shows how Uber tried to shore up support by discreetly courting prime ministers, presidents, billionaires, oligarchs and media barons.

Do not mistake my headline for a dismissal of the significance of these documents. Uber was a company with scumbag leadership and expansion tactics to match from its founding. We all know this. But reading these excerpts in the words of executives and lobbyists is something else.

Scilla Alecci, ICIJ:

Executives at Uber Technologies Inc. took notice; they feared that their company could be next, newly leaked documents show. As it expanded its footprint around the globe, the ride-hailing giant had devised ways to save millions of dollars in taxes by routing profits through Bermuda and other tax havens.

“Our corporate tax structure is — in pure European political terms — the Achilles heel of the company,” Mark MacGann, Uber’s chief lobbyist in Europe at the time, wrote to the company’s tax department chief.

As scrutiny ramped up, the leaked documents show, Uber hit on a brazen strategy to steer attention away from its tax liabilities: help authorities collect taxes from its drivers instead.

In an email to other managers, MacGann declared that sharing information on drivers’ earnings could “contain” the demands of tax authorities. By doing so, Uber could “avoid broadening of the investigation to other countries and/or other tax matters (corporation),” he wrote.

MacGann is the source of these leaked documents. One could argue he was just doing his job, but that does not excuse how awful it is for him to advocate scapegoating the company’s drivers on tax issues.

These documents are useful, but only in the sense of creating a more fulsome public record of the illegal and unethical behaviour Uber used as its growth model. Even though it clearly operated criminally, there is no turning back; the company and its competitors are firmly engrained in transportation infrastructure around the world. What I am left with after reading these stories is a question: how much of that Uber remains?

According to a statement from an Uber spokesperson to the ICIJ, 90% of the company’s current employees were hired after Dara Khosrowshahi took the CEO job. That sounds like impressive change, especially since the company still fails to acknowledge drivers as employees. But that was five years ago; at many Silicon Valley companies, that is a lifetime. But at least one of the executives responsible for sketchy Kalanick policies — in this case, executing a so-called “kill switch” to prevent Dutch investigators’ access to company files — now runs Uber Eats, which been a lifeline for its parent company during the pandemic.

Rogers Says Services Mostly Restored

Pete Evans, CBC News:

Rogers services are back online for most customers after a daylong outage at the telecom giant that left millions of Canadians without internet and cellular service, while also disrupting government services and payment systems.

[…]

Tony Staffieri, chief executive and president of Rogers, said in an open letter that the company apologizes for the service interruption. He gave no explanation for the outage or how many customers were affected.

If Cloudflare’s data is any indication, the answer to the second mystery is pretty much every customer. The amount of Rogers traffic stayed at zero for an entire day. It is awful for everyone affected, but do not worry — Rogers will automatically apply a credit to customers’ accounts. And that is really what this post is about.

Lisa Belmonte, Narcity:

During another big Rogers outage that happened back in April 2021, wireless calls, SMS and data services were down across Canada for almost an entire day because of an issue with a software update.

After it was resolved and service was restored, Rogers issued credits to customers who were impacted by the outage.

A credit equivalent to the wireless service fee from that day was automatically applied to the customer’s bill the next month.

If someone pays Rogers $100 per month for cellular service and another $100 per month for internet — not uncommon rates in this ferociously expensive country — it likely means getting one day’s credit for each, for a total of about $6. That is a slap in the face.

There is a disconnect between how much these services cost to end users and how much they enable. Many people depend on a single company for their connectivity services, as bundle pricing disincentivize us from shopping around. In return, we expect ongoing service, divided into manageable monthly payments. When that fails, it is worth more than a free cup of coffee and an apology.

In fairness to Rogers, it can see itself providing extraordinary value at $3 per day per connection. But we expect far more than that, and it would be obscene for a service provider to begin charging based on how much it enables. Internet access is arguably a human right but its availability, price, and quality is left up to private companies which hate competing. So what would be so wrong with nationalizing internet or cellular service?

Ding Dong Ditches

Meghan Bobrowsky and Cara Lombardo, Wall Street Journal:

Elon Musk is seeking to terminate his $44 billion agreement to buy Twitter Inc., saying that the company hasn’t provided the necessary data and information he needs to assess the prevalence of fake or spam accounts, according to a regulatory filing Friday.

Well, I am sure this is the last we will hear of this event that has either been a barely consequential drama or very public stock market manipulation.

Bret Taylor, chairman of Twitter’s board of directors, tweeted Friday afternoon that the board plans to pursue legal action to enforce the deal at the price and terms originally agreed upon.

Bloomberg’s Matt Levine on Twitter:

the reason that elon musk can’t get out of the deal over the bots thing is not that he “waived due diligence.” it’s that he SIGNED A BINDING AGREEMENT TO BUY TWITTER, and that agreement does not have any outs for “i think there are too many bots.”

So this is just going to keep on dragging on until Musk shouts “smoke bomb” and runs away, right? Hoo-ray.

Update: Matt Levine, Bloomberg:

I tell you what though. I have learned my lesson. The next time Elon Musk announces that he is going to buy a public company — and he will do it again! — I will know not to believe him. I will definitely know not to write about it.

Probably the safest choice.

Matt Y, the Cable Guy

I had two options when I read a recent tweet from Matthew Yglesias: I could have ignored it, on account of it being sort of hollow and meaningless, if not outright wrong; or I could respond to it. Writing all about a single context-free tweet does seem really stupid on my part. It is not like Yglesias is going to read this, so it would only be a way of telling you, dear viewer, to read this one dumb tweet. On the other hand, it does give me an opportunity to explain why I think it is so very dumb. And it is one of those things that has been bouncing around my head.

You know I cannot resist. Here is the tweet:

The anti-monopoly people should talk about the benefits to consumers of streaming video being fragmented across Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Amazon, Disney, Paramount, Peacock, etc instead of just buying a single bundle from the cable company.

There is no follow-up to this, so I think Yglesias’ implied conclusion is that cable television was not so bad, even though it is a monopoly in many regions, because you could just pay one bundle rate and get all the popular channels and, by association, all the popular shows. For comparison, if you want to keep up with the first ten items on — to pick just one collection — Esquire’s list of 2022’s standout shows, you have to subscribe to six different streaming services on top of a cable TV package that includes HBO.

Paying for multiple subscriptions and dealing with half a dozen apps on your TV really does seem like a drawback compared to the single-bill world of cable TV. But it is not like this is the fault of overzealous anti-monopoly advocates. On the contrary, this actually seems like a product of vertical integration.

For comparison, let us take a look at the world of streaming music services. Spotify is the most popular, with about a third of the market, but Apple, Amazon, and Tencent all have similar shares, followed by YouTube. These top five services split eighty percent of the total market for streaming music, according to this January 2022 report from Midia Research.

Most people probably use just one of these because most of the bigger players have approximately similar catalogues. Where they differ is in execution. If you want more social features and exclusive podcasts, you probably want to subscribe to Spotify; if you have a Prime subscription, you might be okay with Amazon Music. But you really only need to use a single one of these to have access to a semi-universal catalogue of tens of millions of songs.

One reason for this situation — perhaps not the only reason but certainly a major factor — is the separation of the production and distribution channels of music. The services do not own record labels. Each of them certainly has exclusive releases, but the vast majority is a shared pool of songs licensed by labels.

This near-universal pool — and the consistent cost to subscribers — means services are forced to compete on other terms. But the competition between streaming video services is inextricably linked with the material they produce. In the last two years, Netflix has nearly doubled its ratio of Originals to licensed material, a strategy it has leaned on as competing services consolidate shows. Disney has an entire streaming service built exclusively on intellectual property it owns, much of it the result of acquisitions. Each streaming service has responded by building its own library of original media.

And you know what? That means there are many shows. So many shows. Maybe too many shows. But it also means there has been a boom of interesting, quirky, weird shows, some of which would not have been given cable airtime. There is also plenty of crap — but that is nothing new. The streaming boom has expanded the total number of films and TV shows being made every year.

You can find evidence for this in your local TV guide, where cable TV still manages to fill its schedule every day. Yeah — cable TV still exists, though its subscriber base is declining precipitously. But there are still plenty of shows being made for television. It is just that far more premium quality shows are made now than ever before thanks to the higher budgets that can be afforded for now by the streaming service market.

What Yglesias seems to be complaining about is increased variety and competition resulting from shows no longer being tied to a handful of channels airing, realistically, during a short primetime window every day. But this choice is partly the result of vertical integration, where the same company develops, produces, markets, distributes, and shows its own programming instead of licensing material made by others. If there were stronger regulatory structures in place, perhaps Disney would not have been able to acquire Marvel and Pixar and Star Wars; maybe Comcast would not have been allowed to buy NBCUniversal. Maybe there would be restrictions on how vertically integrated these markets could be — a company may have to choose between creating shows and exhibiting them, for example. I am not saying that would be better — even a dummy like me can see so many issues with that — but perhaps it would make the streaming video business a little more like streaming music.

As it is, streaming video providers’ incentives are aligned with getting more people to pay a monthly access fee. It does not necessarily matter how many people watch each item — in the simplest terms, it is actually more beneficial for streaming services to have as many subscribers as possible and as few viewers as any show can sustain, since each viewer costs money. Streaming music has completely different incentives. The goal of record labels is to license their library everywhere and get as many people as possible listening to their roster of artists so they can get a bigger slice of services’ monthly revenue.

There is a whole different side of this story that I have no business exploring, which is how cable TV used to be a more regulated system in the U.S. before rules were loosened in the 1980s and 1990s. But that is not in my wheelhouse.

The thing I am trying to underscore is that, contrary to Yglesias’ implication, “anti-monopoly people” are probably not overjoyed that a handful of conglomerates now control the entire pipeline of American visual media, and the expansion of choice has largely been driven by entries from yet more big businesses like Apple and Amazon. The “fragmented” landscape Yglesias is so perturbed by is more choice and competition than ever. Unfortunately, it is powered by vertically integrated giants, each of which has enough money and intellectual property to demand its own slice of your monthly income.

By the way, have you heard that piracy of TV shows is on the rise again?