Month: March 2023

Speaking of data loss and backups, Josh Hill has a followup post:

I wrote in to upper management and explained the situation, and made a desperate plea to anyone in the tech community who could help provide suggestions. Tons of previous customers wrote in with their own horror stories from their digital pasts, gave various ideas to help out, and even donated to keep us afloat during the week we had to halt operations.

Why did we shut down until we found a resolution? Working on systems where data loss has occurred, writing new files to the disk, substantially reduces the chance of recovering any data. Or worse, maybe we could trigger the same bug again, without knowing what cause it, and lose more data.

After a few days, Apple’s backend engineers were finally able to recover what now seems to be all of the lost data, despite what the phone-in agent stated.

This is a great resolution, and I am happy that Hill’s precious photos were found. There are plenty of people who care about this stuff at Apple and understood the urgency of finding them. But all of this is meaningless without a guarantee. I am not reassured by this resolution if the bug Hill documented still seems to exist in the shipping version of MacOS 13.3, and without a promise that similar recovery steps would be taken for any user. I also do not love that Hill removed the original article and excluded it from the Wayback Machine because I think these things are important to document, even if they are later corrected, but that is just a me problem.

I am a fool.

When I linked to Josh Hill’s heartbreaking story of massive data loss in iCloud Photo Library, there was something I neglected to mention. Something I have been keeping secret for the past few years: my photo library outgrew my desktop Mac’s internal storage — the Mac I do all my photo editing on — and I did what nobody is supposed to do. I told Photos to optimize my Mac’s storage.

Yes, for the past few years, the only full copy of my photo library has been in iCloud and, yes, it has worried me just about every day since I changed that preference. This was a very stupid, very bad idea for someone who apparently cares about their photo library, and who has already experienced the pain of massive data loss.

We all have our flaws.

The day after I read Hill’s story, I ordered another external SSD, this time in a ghastly shade of blue — $90 seems like a steep price to pay for the more tasteful beige finish — and it arrived shortly thereafter. The two terabyte model gives me enough space for a local copy of my entire library, plus room to grow. I followed Apple’s documentation to move my photo library over and it was mostly straightforward. I do not need to bore you with tiny details. There are two things which surprised me:

  1. When you set a new photo library as the system default, you will see a warning message appear if you use iCloud features. It says “any photos and videos that have not been fully downloaded will be removed from this Mac”, which makes it feel like a destructive action is about to happen. But that media is, theoretically, in the cloud, so it will be re-downloaded later.

  2. After changing the system library location, Photos says “This Library isn’t searchable in Spotlight due to its location”. Apple says:

    The enhanced Spotlight Search can locate items in the System Photo Library. If you use other libraries, Spotlight does not locate items in those.

    So I assumed this message would disappear after my Mac figured out I had moved its library. A week later, it has not disappeared and images from Photos are, indeed, not searchable in Spotlight. Apple’s documentation implies Spotlight will work for whichever library is the system one, but the message in Photos implies that libraries stored on external drives will not be indexed.

I wish both of these things were clearer, but not as much as I do the status of media which has not been downloaded.

My Mac has been dutifully downloading tens of thousands of original media files from iCloud until earlier this week when it decided to stop. The only information I have is a message in Photos, saying there are 42 originals not yet downloaded — but which ones are missing is anyone’s guess. Photos has Smart Albums but, unlike Music, it does not have a filtering criteria for whether the original file has been downloaded. There does not appear to be any logging, nor any status window. While writing this paragraph, I can see the library file slowly increasing in size; however, the number of original files remaining to be downloaded has not budged.

Apple does not provide much guidance. If I have exhausted the steps in the iCloud Photos help document and the Photos for Mac guide, I can only try using the opaque library repair tool. Beyond Apple’s documentation, the only troubleshooting ideas I can find for this issue are time- and data-consuming. I am told I should try exporting all of my photos as original files which will force Photos to ensure all originals are downloaded, but this is impractical to do for an entire library. If that does not work, I can delete my local library, sign out of iCloud and then back in again, and trigger a library rebuild. None of these options makes much sense for a library of over 70,000 photos totalling 1.3 terabytes.

Happily, after repairing my library and waiting for it to reconcile with iCloud, it seems there were only 21 missing original media files which needed a local copy, and they seem to have downloaded. I still do not know what they were. I only have myself to blame for getting to this point. Even so, the lack of any way for me to figure out which items are only in iCloud and not on my local drive is a baffling omission. It is not quite a silent failure but it is in the spirit of one, where Apple seems to have assumed that its software will perform correctly and users should never need to intervene. In the real world, I just wanted to know what it was waiting on.

Today is apparently World Backup Day and I am happy to have a local copy — or nearly so — of my photo library. Not only does it mean these precious images are stored on my own drive, it also means they can be backed up — in my case, to Backblaze, like everything on my Mac.1 Automatic backups are critically important. My photo library was the only thing I was not truly backing up, and the past few years of having just one copy has been an unnecessary source of stress in my life. After reading this article, I imagine you may be feeling similarly worried about anything you have not backed up. Think of it this way: re-creating your most important documents and rebuilding your local music library would be time consuming at best, but remaking your photo library is impossible.

We have all heard it countless times, but it bears repeating: priorities reflect what we actually do with our time. Backups cost money, this is true. But seeing as most of our really important stuff is entirely digital and often hosted in someone else’s cloud, it is imperative that we have our own copies and we perform our own backups. Software and services need a warranty. Until they have one, we completely control how much we value our data. That is the best we can do.

  1. If you want to sign up for Backblaze, using my affiliate link will lower the cost of my subscription. ↥︎

Tom Scocca, New York:

There is a world, almost within reach, in which LED lighting could be aesthetically fabulous. But right now, it’s one more thing that overpromises and under-delivers. What we’re starting to glimpse is a new phase in which good light, once easy to achieve and available to everyone, becomes a luxury product or the province of technological obsessives. The rest of the world will look a little more faded.

Just about every bulb in our house is an LED one. I have not had the same kind of bad luck as Scocca — I do not know if the bulbs we get here are somehow different to the ones in the U.S. — but it could also be that almost all the bulbs we use are a warm white light, around 2,700 Kelvin. It is a hue closer to an incandescent bulb and it, along with my predilection for dimmer lighting, seems to mask colour reproduction problems.

It is a frustrating situation to be in because LED lighting is, in every other aspect, a no-brainer compared to incandescent, compact fluorescent, or halogen lights. The bulbs are cheaper to run, last longer, are more durable, produce next to no heat, and have none of the “warm up” time that plagues fluorescent tubes. But the light they produce is not quite right yet. Going backwards is not an option. These bulbs need to get better, and not just for people who can afford specialty market versions.

Noor Al-Sibai and Jon Christian, Futurism:

Indeed, the first AI content BuzzFeed published — a series of quizzes that turned user input into customized responses — were an interesting experiment, avoiding many of the missteps that other publishers have made with the tech.

It doesn’t seem like that commitment to quality has held up, though. This month, we noticed that with none of the fanfare of Peretti’s multiple interviews about the quizzes, BuzzFeed quietly started publishing fully AI-generated articles that are produced by non-editorial staff — and they sound a lot like the content mill model that Peretti had promised to avoid.

The articles found by Al-Sibai and Christian are mostly tourism articles, and one is about Alberta. Not only is it generic, it reflects the kind of delusions held only by A.I. and writers who have not actually visited the destinations they are promoting. It is a five-item list of highlights, and the first three are about the Rocky Mountains, which are best accessible by flying into Calgary. The fourth item promises dinosaurs “everywhere you turn”, but that is only possible by visiting a museum about an hour and a half away, or a provincial park over two hours outside Calgary.

The fifth item is my favourite:

You thought Alberta was finished blowing your mind? Hold up, because we’re capping this list off with the ultimate light show. Head north to Wood Buffalo National Park, and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch the aurora borealis painting the night sky. Grab a blanket, some hot chocolate, and get ready to be amazed.

Wood Buffalo National Park is a twelve hour drive away from Calgary. Want to fly? The nearest airport is in Fort Smith, in the Northwest Territories — which is not in Alberta, is serviced by one airline, and you cannot fly in during the winter.

Making a tourism guide for Alberta as a whole is a little bit like making a tourism guide for all of France, which is about the same size. At least France has trains. And, look, none of this has been about A.I. in the strictest sense, but it gave me a laugh.

Like last year, Apple says there will be an in-person viewing of the keynote and “state of the union” on its first day, but it is otherwise a virtual conference. The online format is working well for Apple, especially at the current scale of its developer community, so why change it?

I am not sure that there is anything to be gleaned from this announcement other than the date, though it is tempting to read into it what you wish. For what it is worth, Apple has previously used this press release to set expectations. For example, 2011 broke the streak of a new iPhone hardware announcement at WWDC; in its announcement, Apple said the company would “unveil the future of iOS and Mac OS”, and reiterated that May that it would be a software-only announcement. But it is not like the company would come out and say WWDC 2023 “will spotlight the latest iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS, and tvOS advancements” and also exciting new hardware.

Thomas Claburn, the Register:

Despite the opposition of 38 civil society groups, the French National Assembly has approved the use of algorithmic video surveillance during the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Endorsed by French senators in January, the proposed law for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games cleared a committee vote earlier this month. On Thursday, the French National Assembly adopted Article 7 of the pending bill, which authorizes automated analysis of surveillance video from fixed and drone cameras.

Notably, this law has excluded specific biometric identifiers, according to Peter O’Brien of France 24. But it is still more intrusive than people might be expecting and, for some reason, it will be allowed to operate until the end of June 2025 — nearly a year after both the Olympics and Paralympics end. Amnesty International is not pleased.

Collin Woodard, Jalopnik:

I’m sorry to break it to anyone who has trouble keeping their car out of a bike lane (or off a concrete barrier), but it’s not the bike lane’s fault you’re a shitty driver. If you hit something stationary, that’s your fault. Pay attention to the fucking road while you’re driving. It’s not too much to ask when other people’s lives are literally at stake.

I was once again nearly hit by an inattentive driver while I was crossing the road, so I feel like it is time I used my modest platform to advocate for the bold position of not endangering lives.

Felix Kent, Defector:

My tastes have not changed that much since I was 12, but my understanding and acceptance of them has. If someone gave me Green now, I would probably listen to it once or twice, acknowledge its virtues and move on. But when I was 12 I listened to it over and over and over again; I listened to it so much that I fell in love with it.

After all, I was stuck with it. I had a limited number of cassette tapes and this was one of them. This condition of my youth seems both hugely important and impossible to really convey to anyone whose life postdates the internet. If I wanted to read something I had what was already on my shelves; if I wanted to listen to something I had the radio or the household supply of music. Music could be bought, but the process of finding and buying was subject to a degree of contingency that I can’t really explain. […]

An essay far more thoughtful and worthwhile than you might imagine from a premise that flirts dangerously with back-in-my-day nostalgia. I remember car journeys soundtracked by the maximum number of tapes, first, and then CDs we could cram into the glovebox. But even with the option of choice, there are indications we often prefer the familiar, though a wider assessment shows more exploration.

Jeff Teper of Microsoft:

We have been listening to your feedback which has culminated in a reimagining of Teams from the ground up. The new app is built on a foundation of speed, performance, flexibility, and intelligence—delivering up to two times faster performance while using 50 percent less memory so you can save time and collaborate more efficiently. […]

As you check out the screenshots and recordings in this post from a team thrilled to announce their basic chat application is able to launch in just over nine seconds instead of taking over twenty, and now consumes half a gigabyte of memory instead of a full gigabyte, it is a good time to remember that you, as an employee of an organization which uses Office, are not the end user Microsoft really cares about. It is instead focused on providing a complete experience for its customers — institutions, businesses, governments, and their I.T. departments — from which is hard to move away, in part because it has few competitors which, in turn, is partly because it is hard to switch. Neat how that works out, right? Teams is successful, but not because it is good; it never really needed to compete on those terms.

This new version of Teams is out first on Windows in preview capacity — your I.T. department might need to enable access — and is coming to Macs and the web later this year.

Here is another spectacular video essay from Dan Olson — this time, about Decentraland specifically, but also the amorphous idea of the “metaverse”, and the ridiculous concept of owning “real estate” in virtual space.

It feels crushingly boring to me that this whole space — much like cryptocurrency and the broader world of the “Web3” term of art — is built around commerce. But it is notable because it feels like a historical disconnect. The road arriving at the door to the metaverse has been paved by revolutionary technologies like printing presses and the internet. Not only did they make new things possible, they also reduced the cost of making things compared to whatever came before them — sometimes to zero. These virtual reality demos have, so far, been an exercise in exactly the opposite direction. They make existing things like video games and text-based communications harder, while also making everything much more expensive.

If Apple is, as rumoured, getting closer to previewing its entry into the nascent augmented or virtual reality space, it would be worrisome if it represented anything we have seen so far. It would obviously be bad if it unveils something which is, as reported, “a solution in search of a problem”. But I would be just as concerned if it is solving a problem of there not being enough places to spend money on things you cannot actually own.

Reddit user “horizontalhole” discovered something curious:

From 2017–2022 the Vatican flag SVG on Wikimedia Commons contained a mistake. You can now tell which flag manufacturers/emoji platforms used the file.

I found this post via the Depths of Wikipedia Twitter account. Once you see the most noticeable difference — the tiara in the Wikimedia Commons version is filled red while the official flag is white — you begin to see examples everywhere. It seems like a bunch of people in Iraq in 2021 were waving the Wikimedia version because a print shop made a bunch of them. It is also present in images from Thailand, Switzerland, and crowds at the Vatican itself.

But here is where things got weird: the version with a red filled tiara is also present on the Popemobile in a visit to Peru, held outside the Pope’s plane in Rome, was raised outside the Vatican embassy in Italy, and hung at a Catholic Conference building in the United States. In addition to the red tiara, they also have the brighter yellow fill in the key of the 2017 Wikimedia variant. While members of the public may have purchased a faulty flag, it seems unlikely to me for representatives of the Vatican to be using a knockoff. And if you go back far enough in the Getty Images archive, you will see the red variant in photos from Mexico City in 2016 and outside the United Nations in 2015 — both taken before the flag on Wikimedia was changed to the apparently incorrect version.

It gets stranger still. The flag shown on one official Vatican webpage about its history shows only the white-filled tiara, but the cord element below the keys is shown in red, which differs from another official Vatican page where it is shown in white. A translated version of the latter page says nothing about what colour each element is supposed to be aside from the yellow and white field.

Luckily, there is a definitive book by Rev. William M. Becker about the flags of the Vatican. On page 99, there is a picture of the flag from an appendix to the Vatican’s 2000 Fundamental Law, about which the Vatican says:

The flag of Vatican City State is constituted by two fields divided vertically, a yellow one next to the staff and a white one, and bears in the latter the tiara with the keys, all according to the model which forms attachment A of the present Law.

So it is settled, right? The version shown — which has a tiara in white, red-filled corded elements, and gold colours which differ from the yellow of the field — is the only official flag of Vatican City. Case closed?

Nope. On page 103, Becker writes:

State flags flown by Vatican buildings follow the basic constitutional design, but vary widely in details such as proportions, color shades, and emblem details. […]

Indeed, Becker includes a series of flags with variations in the colour used for the keys, the cord element, and the tiara, in the 1980s through 2013. Even well past the publication of what the Vatican deemed its official flag, versions shown in and around Vatican City have differences in the shading of each of these elements. Becker goes on to write that these “variations suggest that Vatican authorities could clarify the flag’s details more precisely”, and laments how “local flagmakers often rely on questionable sources (e.g., Wikipedia)” (106).

It does seem that, officially, the version of the Vatican flag with a white-filled tiara is the most correct option. But even within Vatican City itself and in official use, there is considerable variation. Perhaps most relevant to the original post, it is not necessarily true that a Vatican flag with a red-filled tiara is derived from the 2017–2022 Wikimedia image. However, with a more correct version in the world’s most-used encyclopaedia, it may be a productive case of citogenesis.

Paul Kafasis, writing on Rogue Amoeba’s blog, shares a story from Adam Curry about a nerve-wracking meeting involving Steve Jobs, the then-feared RIAA, and the earliest versions of Audio Hijack. It is a worthwhile story, but I also recommend checking out that full interview with Curry, which is full of thoughtful questions about the history of podcasting, its slow climb, and where it goes from here.

Mark Sullivan, Fast Company:

Generative AI announcements from major tech companies continue to roll in; meanwhile, Apple’s silence on the subject grows louder.

Yeah, why is Apple not rushing into this months-old market, anyway? Why is there no hastily arranged corporate presentation?

But adding generative AI to its assistant may be harder for Apple than for its big tech peers. The company’s dogged focus on privacy has been an effective cudgel against Meta and Google in the social networking and advertising realms, but it’s a serious impediment to building an assistant that harnesses the goodness of generative AI. In order to transform Siri—to make it smarter and more human-feeling—via a large language model, Apple would have to open up access to a broad swath of public information (from the web) and, more importantly, personal user information: their communication style, plans, priorities, preferences, health stats, tastes, and relationships.

Oh we are at this stage in the rumour mill already: not only is Apple falling behind, its privacy stance will prevent it from ever catching up. The world’s most valuable company has flunked out of the market for this emerging technology before it has even begun. Pack it in everyone, this is the end of the road.

Casey Newton:

It is a ritual previously endured by Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Sundar Pichai, and Jack Dorsey, among others. And while each of them faced withering questions, in the end withering questions is all that Congress really gave them. Hearings like these are often framed as a precursor to stringent regulation, but in the United States they are a substitute for them. Congress yells at social media companies — posting clips of their sickest burns on the very companies they criticize — and then fails to pass a single piece of legislation.

TikTok’s hearing might have gone this way, too, were it not for one overarching, bipartisan concern: that the company’s owner, ByteDance, might be forced by the Chinese government to surveil Americans or seek to influence them by promoting pro-China or anti-US content.

I think this might be the best exploration of what happened today, with the small caveat that I am not sure TikTok could have done a single thing to convince lawmakers. Its behaviour leading up to this hearing, while similar to that of other tech companies, basically ensured this hearing would go the way it did. If it was not already clear enough, just before the hearing, the Chinese government confirmed forced divestiture was off the table.

Caitlin Yilek, CBS News:

In testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, CEO Shou Zi Chew struggled to reassure lawmakers that the massively popular social video app doesn’t pose a risk to its 150 million users nor share user data with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But he admitted that TikTok had collected location data on U.S. users in the past, and said some historical data is still stored in servers that could be accessed by engineers from ByteDance, its parent company based in China.

Members of both parties spent hours denouncing TikTok’s data collection practices and painting it as a tool used by the Chinese government to track and spy on Americans. Before lawmakers even began their questioning, GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the committee’s chair, said they “do not trust that TikTok will ever embrace American values.”

I had today’s hearing playing in the background and it was a tense and frustrating back-and-forth. As is typical for these kinds of hearings, lawmakers mostly soapboxed relentlessly, asked complicated questions they framed as a simple matter of yes or no, and did not let Chew finish answering. The word “communist” was used with the same frequency and tone as the word “fuck” in “Uncut Gems”. It was very clear, from the outset, that most committee members were not much interested in investigating, but were instead trying to justify a forthcoming likely vote to ban TikTok from the United States. Perhaps appropriately, a representative named McCarthy supports a TikTok ban.

Chew, meanwhile, played the same role as any tech company CEO who has sat in that chair before him, and either reiterated talking points or said he would get back to lawmakers with more complete answers. One notable awkward moment was when Rep. Debbie Lesko, of Arizona, asked Chew whether he agreed that the Chinese government had persecuted Uyghurs, and he would not answer, though he did associate it with his “concern[s] about all accounts of human rights abuse”. If you scrunch that up a bit, it kind of looks like a “yes”, but only kind of.

The concerns raised were, as many members acknowledged, bipartisan and (nearly) universal, but they differed in focus. Republican representatives were overwhelmingly concerned about the company’s Chinese government connections, but also questioned its ability to effectively moderate users’ posts. They repeatedly cited how effective the TikTok’s moderation responses were in places like Singapore, with its stricter drug laws, and how much faster moderators work on Douyin, its Chinese-market equivalent. These were glowing endorsements of more interference by private companies in users’ posts coming from Republican lawmakers. Meanwhile, Democrats often used their time to interrogate Chew about the effects of TikTok on mental and physical health, particularly in children. During a break in the hearing, Geoffrey Fowler of the Washington Post lamented that the topics were getting all mixed up and there was little substantive questioning.

There were rare moments of clarity and productive questioning; Rep. Lori Trahan provided one of them:

Rep. Trahan: In 2021, the U.K.’s Age Appropriate Design Code went into effect, mandating 15 standards that companies like you need to follow to protect children on your platform. You still operate in the United Kingdom, which means you should be in compliance with this code. So my question is simple: will you commit to extending the protections currently afforded children in the U.K. to the millions of kids and teens who use your app here, in the United States?

Chew: We take the safety of the younger users on our platform very seriously —

Rep. Trahan: This is a good way to prove it.

For me, this exchange underscored how important it is for lawmakers to set meaningful standards. All social media companies are going to maximize their user base within legal limits. TikTok, like other platforms, sets restrictions for users who are old enough to create accounts but still minors. But, like every other platform, it will not willingly reduce its user base — why would it?

Ahead of the hearing, Rep. Trahan authored a thoughtful op-ed in the Boston Globe noting, among other things, the reason why TikTok is under a unique spotlight:

Finally, the American people have to understand how TikTok went from a relatively obscure part of the national security conversation to a full-blown proxy as tensions escalate with China. The short answer: Big Tech corporations in America.

Rep. Trahan is not wrong. The national security concerns raised during the hearing were mostly hypothetical, often speculating about algorithmic manipulation and covert influence campaigns. The most concrete fears were borne of a Chinese national security law which compels companies based there to surreptitiously hand over user data when demanded by the government. One representative called TikTok the equivalent of a Chinese spy in Americans’ pockets.

As a Canadian watching this hearing, I could not help but raise an eyebrow. The U.S. has similar policies but dominates the tech industry. Is just about every other hardware and software product an American spy in the pockets of users worldwide? I take it this is not a moral objection but a political one. It is grossly oversimplifying the situation to claim that U.S. lawmakers are using their power to assist domestic businesses confronting a large and foreign competitor, but it is notable how much time is being spent confronting TikTok specifically instead of building a privacy framework that would limit its risk. After all, a good and worthwhile national privacy law would also kneecap many Silicon Valley giants. Again, this is only one component of a very complex picture, but it is worth mentioning.

It does appear U.S. lawmakers are heading full-speed toward voting for a TikTok ban or forced divestment. The Electronic Frontier Foundation says there would be numerous legal challenges should banishment be on the table.

As mentioned repeatedly today, a “Select Committee on Foreign Interference Through Social Media” in the Australian parliament produced a report — PDF download, not viewable inline — which concluded that TikTok “can no longer be accurately described as a private enterprise”. It is on my reading list. If it is as claimed, it will be more comprehensive than anything from this hearing.

A non-bylined post at Bitestring:

We are going to test a product built by a company called FingerprintJS Inc. who is selling fingerprinting as a service. They make JavaScript fingerprinting libraries which are in fact open source and sell it to many websites. There’s FingerprintJS Pro which is an even scarier version of regular fingerprinting library. It doesn’t matter if you are using a VPN or Private Browsing mode, they can accurately identify you. Here’s how they are describing themselves, “The device identity platform for high-scale applications”.

FingerprintJS has a demo built into its homepage, When you visit this website, they generate a visitor ID (fingerprint) which is unique for your browser. So even if you clear the cache (and other site data) or visit the site in Private Browsing mode, they can generate the same ID and correlate with your previous visit.

My visitor ID was stable in Safari after visiting only in private windows across two separate sessions. This, despite using Safari’s anti-tracking features, having iCloud Private Relay switched on, and using browser extensions which limit what kinds of scripts are able to run in my browser — and, again, accessing it only in private windows. On its homepage, FingerprintJS says the “VisitorID will remain the same for years, even as browsers are upgraded”. It can be, near as makes no difference, a permanent personal identifier.

The writer notes Firefox has a resistFingerprinting setting which does appear to prevent whatever techniques FingerprintJS is using by restricting access to some APIs. However, as this technology is also used to check that website visitors are real people and to reduce credit card fraud, I imagine it could prove restrictive. There are already many websites which challenge me to prove I am not a bot simply because I am using Safari; the same sites do not present so many challenges in Chrome.

Johana Bhuiyan, the Guardian:

Shou Zi Chew is not a prolific TikToker. The 40-year-old CEO of the Chinese-owned app has just 23 posts and 17,000 followers to his name – paltry by his own platform’s standards.


On Thursday Chew will appear before a US congressional committee, answering to lawmakers’ concerns over the Chinese government’s access to US user data, as well as TikTok’s impact on the mental health of its younger user base. The stakes are high, coming amid a crackdown on TikTok in the US to Europe. In the past few months alone, the US has banned TikTok on federal government devices, following similar moves by multiple states’ governments, and the Biden administration has threatened a national ban unless its Chinese-owned parent company, ByteDance, sells its shares.

Chew’s prepared remarks (PDF) are a mostly the kind of boilerplate stuff you would expect from a tech company CEO brought before lawmakers in the 2020s, albeit with the unique twist that he must defend TikTok against accusations it is a vessel for foreign espionage. And, as is common for these kinds of hearings, I expect little substantive questioning. However, I am anticipating someone will seize upon the last sentence in this paragraph:

Next, I want to address what we’re working on now. I know that there has been a lot of speculation about Project Texas recently based on media coverage. While conversations with the government are ongoing, our work on Project Texas has continued unabated. We are working hard every day to reach new milestones. For example, earlier this month, we began the process of deleting historical protected U.S. user data stored in non-Oracle servers; we expect this process to be completed later this year. When that process is complete, all protected U.S. data will be under the protection of U.S. law and under the control of the U.S.-led security team. Under this structure, there is no way for the Chinese government to access it or compel access to it.

One way to read this is that TikTok’s current structure does permit some amount of Chinese government access. This is contradicted later in the remarks — “[…] the inaccurate belief that TikTok’s corporate structure makes it beholden to the Chinese government or that it shares information about U.S. users with the Chinese government” — so I do not think this is some kind of telling slip. But if some representative wants to use their time to needle at the exact language of this statement, I am sure they will.

Paul Murray, New York:

In September, my family and I move from our home in Dublin to a fancy East Coast college town, where I’ll be teaching for the semester. I grew up in Dublin, which means I have a wide circle of friends to draw on whenever I’m let out of the house. The street where I live is friendly: If I want to borrow a spatula or I need someone to look after my cat, I have only to ask.


On my initial visits, the metaverse seems sort of desolate, like an abandoned mall, and ordinarily I wouldn’t be lining up to join the misfits still populating it. Now that I’m away from my social network, though, I realize how much heavy lifting was being done by the brief, bantering, checking-in conversations I used to have with my friends and neighbors. So I’m determined to find the metaverse’s true believers, those left behind when the rest of fickle reality has moved on. They may not be able to lend me a spatula, but I’ve decided that, for now at least, these will be my people.

There are tiny bleak details in Murray’s exploration of Horizon Worlds — Murray describes the way it “flattens” social interactions, for example, in a way not too dissimilar from the context collapse of social media — but do not let that distract you from the overall sadder perspective. I have not been sold on Meta’s idea of the virtual reality world, and this piece did not make me a convert. It got reactions out of me, though — mostly laughter, occasionally gasps.

I do not want to be entirely dismissive here; Meta may be onto something, albeit early and poorly. But I think it is telling how hard it is to justify this experience compared to how quickly A.I.-generated text and images found a place in the world. After all the swings and misses of the past few years — Web3, NFTs, Meta’s take on augmented reality — people immediately found uses for things like ChatGPT. It has a technical name that reveals almost nothing, and is hosted on a subdomain of the website of OpenAI, a company that current users of its products probably had not heard of a year ago. The financial burden of getting into Meta’s virtual world or becoming mired in cryptocurrency nonsense certainly plays a role in reduced adoption. What we have learned from other devices is that people will pay a price if they can see how it will fit into their lives. So far, this virtual reality stuff is not going well.