Month: August 2023

Lots of good new things were announced today, so I will stay on that wavelength with the release of Longplay 2 from Adrian Schoenig. I covered the first version of the app and I really liked it, so I was excited when Schoenig let me know last week that its successor’s release was imminent.

John Voorhees, MacStories:

It’s worth noting that Longplay 2.0 adds support for CarPlay, scrobbling, Listenbrainz, Shortcuts, and alternate icons. Plus, the update adds Home Screen widgets that include a grid of albums from your library that can be tapped to play the album on which you tap. This isn’t widget interactivity. Instead, the app is deep-linking to the album and must open Longplay, but it’s a fantastic feature, and I hope true interactivity is on the horizon for the app. […]

I have not tried CarPlay integration, but the addition of scrobbling makes me very happy. These, by the way, are the smaller updates to this version; lots more to check out in Voorhees’ review and the app itself. It remains an excellent way of rediscovering entire albums you may not have listened to in years.

Ben McCarthy launched Obscura 4 today, a much-anticipated — well, with at least a sample size of me — update to their excellent manual camera app.

Ivan Mehta reviewed it for TechCrunch:

Obscura, the iPhone camera app for pro users, has released a new major version called Obscura 4 with support for the iPad. It also brings new features, such as dual reticule mode to have different points on the viewfinder for focus and exposure.

Obscura has long been a neat dual-purpose app. While Mehta calls out its pro features, it also has plenty of stuff for a less technically invested user like tasteful filters and video capabilities.

I have been using Obscura 4 for a few months and the little design touches have consistently impressed me. McCarthy highlights a few, like the exposure dial and image detail card, but I want to point you to the smooth transitions between screens and modes. These animations never get in the way, and they make the whole app feel fluid and lively.

Also, a tiny new thing I love: you can now set a default exposure compensation. My iPhone 12 Pro consistently produces RAW images that are much too bright for my liking, but it is easy enough to set Obscura to launch with exposure set one-and-one-thirds’ stop down.

If you have not yet read it, Tyler Vigen’s story about researching the reason for building one specific pedestrian bridge over one stretch of a highway in Minnesota is — hand on heart — as good as everyone says it is, and I recommend spending the time with it and its many notations. A full mystery, told fully.

Jason Tate:

It starts with a big text box; you put in your list of items you want to rank, you click rank, you rank, and then you get the results. I then wanted two other features. After you rank, I wanted a quick button to copy the ranking to your clipboard so you can share it. And then I wanted a share button that would share the list of items you just ranked so someone else could rank the same list as you. This took a little bit of extra work, but it makes this whole thing much more fun.

Not only useful, Rank Anything is a neat little delight. Ranking every solo Burial album or EP? No problem. Or, for something less niche and likely more relevant to readers here, ranking every iPhone generation by whatever criteria you decide is relevant.

Bookmark it and thank me later.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation:

So we were concerned when we started hearing from multiple sources that Hurricane Electric, a Tier 1 ISP, is interfering with traffic. Confirmation of the details has been difficult, in part because Hurricane itself has refused to respond to our queries, but it appears that the company is partially denying service to a direct customer, a provider called Crunchbits, in order to disrupt traffic to a site that is several steps away in the stack. And it is justifying that action because activity on the site reportedly violates Hurricane’s “acceptable use policy” — even though Hurricane has no direct relationship with that site. Hurricane argues that the policy requires its direct customers to police their customers as well as themselves.

If the site in question were Reddit, or Planned Parenthood, or even EFF, the internet would be up in arms. It is not, and it’s not hard to see why. The affected site is an almost universally despised forum for hateful speech and planning vicious attacks on vulnerable people: Kiwi Farms. For many, the natural response is to declare good riddance to bad rubbish — and understandably so.

Last year, Cloudflare halted service to Kiwi Farms after spending a considerable amount of time and goodwill defending itself for helping the forum with its security and speed, and I supported that decision. I still do. Cloudflare is not an internet service provider and, while popular, has many competitors across its business interests. It should be more selective about which websites it is willing to support technically, if in no other way.

But internet service providers are entirely different. They are utility providers and ought to maintain neutral about what material passes through their network. Be outraged by other levels of material support received by Kiwi Farms — I encourage it — but internet providers should not be in the moderation business. They are too busy figuring out how to be one of the most essential yet maddening things we all spend money on every month.

Update: In a Twitter thread, Alejandra Caraballo points out that the Kiwi Farms website is unique in that its owner operates its ISP. That is a subtly different argument, and one I think the EFF should have been clearer in making.

Kieran McCarthy:

In the last couple of weeks, Microsoft updated its general terms of use to prohibit scraping, harvesting, or similar extraction methods of its AI services.

Also in the couple of weeks, Microsoft affiliate OpenAI released a product called GPTbot, which is designed to scrape the entire internet.

And while they don’t admit this publicly, OpenAI has almost certainly already scraped the entire non-authwalled-Internet and used it is training data for GPT-3, ChatGPT, and GPT-4.

Nonetheless, without any obvious hints of irony, OpenAI’s own terms of use prohibits scraping.

McCarthy blames the courts, not lawyers for companies like Microsoft and OpenAI.

Becky Hughes, New York Times:

While efforts to challenge the gender binary are evident in how we talk, dress for work and wear makeup, a visit to the cocktail bar might transport you back to the 1950s. Bartenders say that many men appear as committed as ever to drinking out of “manly” glasses and avoiding glassware they deem too feminine.

“It’s an industry joke that we tend to stereotype people based on their glassware preferences,” said Kaslyn Bos, 30, a bartender at Donna in the West Village. At Donna, the drinks are colorful, sometimes heavily garnished with fruit and cocktail umbrellas and often served in “shapely glasses,” she said.

Ms. Bos has fielded requests — only from men — to transfer a cocktail from one glass to another. She noted that a manly glass, to those asking, is always a rocks glass.

Lest you think this is some isolated or recent phenomenon, a six-year-old video on Playboy’s Indulgence YouTube channel has bartenders commenting on exactly the same thing. Hilarious and tragic.

Rebecca Tan and Regine Cabato, Washington Post:

In the Philippines, one of the world’s biggest destinations for outsourced digital work, former employees say that at least 10,000 of these workers do this labor on a platform called Remotasks, which is owned by the $7 billion San Francisco start-up Scale AI.

Scale AI has paid workers at extremely low rates, routinely delayed or withheld payments and provided few channels for workers to seek recourse, according to interviews with workers, internal company messages and payment records, and financial statements. Rights groups and labor researchers say Scale AI is among a number of American AI companies that have not abided by basic labor standards for their workers abroad.

If “Scale AI” sounds familiar to you, it may be because you read similar previous reporting by Josh Dzieza for New York or Andrew Deck for Rest of World. All of these stories are worth your time — though I wish the Post had credited either Dzieza or Deck for their work. As I wrote earlier this year, while these supposedly magical technologies demonstrate achievement in software, they are only made possible by low-paid “gig” workers. We should not obscure that reality.

Om Malik:

Mobile phone processors are becoming more powerful, and computer vision algorithms continue to advance. These innovations will minimize image noise, auto-correct imperfections, and optimize images for screen displays. The software’s capacity to merge data from multiple lenses signifies another leap. AI platforms such as MidJourney and Stable Diffusion will enable the transformation of captured images into unique stories. The hefty investments in software, chips, and algorithms present a significant challenge to traditional camera entities.

As this transformation continues, many camera companies grapple with even the most rudimentary software features. While these companies excel in hardware, they stumble in software development. Brands like Sony, Nikon, Canon, Fuji, and Leica pride themselves on their lens craftsmanship. Yet, when the topic shifts to software, their offerings seem lacking in polish and sophistication, almost as if they’re an afterthought.

This feels true to me. As much as I love my dedicated camera, its software is pretty frustrating. When I am in image playback mode, for example, navigating between images will often lag and, after freezing for a couple of seconds, the photo will jump to one nowhere close in the sequence of images I shot. That is without getting into some of the more advanced qualities increasingly expected of today’s cameras — could you imagine if the best full-frame sensor and high-quality lens were paired with some of the computational techniques from smartphones?

At the same time, I have to wonder if the effort and rethinking that it would take for these established camera makers to become great at software would be a significant distraction for them individually. How many businesses can you think of without a flawed product? If you can, chances are pretty good they are a smaller and more focused organization.

This is only a little bit related: I have noticed a withdrawal of how much I have used my phone camera in the past year or so. I have always been a big fan and supporter of smartphone photography as a creative medium, and Instagram as a fairly natural “exhibition” space. The changes to that platform’s priorities have made it much less attractive to me, to the extent that my most recent post is almost a year old. This is entirely personal and I am sure it is not reflective of any broader trend, so do not read anything more into this than what I am explicitly saying. However, it is a new phone year for me, and I am questioning my default choice of the Pro model more now than I have before, especially since posting on Glass is encouraging me to carry my proper full-frame camera more often than ever.

Benedict Evans:

Whenever anyone proposes new rules or regulations, the people affected always have reasons why this is a terrible idea that will cause huge damage. This applies to bankers, doctors, farmers, lawyers, academics… and indeed software engineers. They always say ‘no’ and policy-makers can’t take that at face value: they discount it by some percentage, as a form of bargaining. But when people say ‘no’, they might actually mean one of three different things, and it’s important to understand the difference.

This is a good piece categorizing the three types of “no” by industries facing new policies as: an aversion to lawmakers telling them what to do, plausible negative consequences of regulation, and technical impossibilities. But Evans does not give nearly enough weight to how often big industry players and their representatives simply lie. They often claim the effects of new regulations will be of the second or third type when there is no evidence to support their claims.

Corporations lying to get their way is not news, of course. A common thread among the examples cited by Evans is that policies which actually do fall into the categories of causing unintended negative effects or being impossible to achieve are noted as such by truly independent experts.

In 2015, after Uber launched in Calgary, the city proposed reasonable and sensible rules, which Uber claimed were entirely “unworkable” for ride sharing as a genre. Many, including popular media outlets, concurred with Uber and begged the city to fold. But it compromised on only a single rule; everything else was passed, meaning that Uber drivers were subject to the same sorts of regulations as taxi drivers because they do the same job. And guess what? Uber has been happily operating in Calgary ever since.

Apple spent years opposing repair legislation on the basis that people would hurt themselves replacing batteries, and that any state which passed such laws would become a “mecca for bad actors”. That line of argument was echoed by some, only for Apple to now support such legislation — with caveats — despite using exactly the same type of battery it says is dangerous for people to swap themselves.

After multiple reports — including several stories by Reveal in 2019 and 2020 — of serious injuries at Amazon warehouses caused in part by its infamously rigorous quotas, and a general avoidance of workers’ rights, lawmakers in California proposed corrective legislation in early 2021. Lobbyists freaked out. In the interim, Reveal found itself smeared “on background” by Amazon’s public relations team, which tells “outright lies” according to multiple reporters. The legislation was signed into law anyway in 2021. It is certainly too early to know its long-term effects, but injury rates at Amazon facilities fell in 2022, though its rates remain double (PDF) the rate of the rest of the industry.


I think the structural problem here, across all three kinds of ‘no’, is that this is pretty new to most of us. I often compare regulation of tech to regulation of cars – we do regulate cars, but it’s complicated and there are many different kinds of question. ‘Should cars have different emissions requirements?’ is a different kind of question to ‘does the tax code favour too much low-density development?’ and both questions are complicated. It’s a lot easier to want less congestion in cities than to achieve it, and it’s a lot easier to worry about toxic content on social media than to solve it, or even agree what ‘solve’ would mean.

But we all grew up with cars. We have a pretty good idea of how roads work, and what gearboxes are, even if we’ve never seen one, and if someone proposed that cars should not come with seats or headlights because that’s unfair competition for third-party suppliers, we could all see the problem. When policy-makers ask for secure encryption with a back door, we do not always see that this would like be telling Ford and GM to stop their cars from crashing, and to make them run on gasoline that doesn’t burn. Well yes, that would be nice, but how? They say ‘no’? Easy – just threaten them with a fine of 25% of global revenue and they’ll build it!

The comparison to regulating cars is apt, though bungled by Evans. In the earliest days, cars killed a lot of people — drivers, passengers, and others. Some manufacturers introduced features like seatbelts, but safety was not an effective sales pitch (PDF). The U.S. federal government responded by passing the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act which mandated the installation of various safety features, and Ralph Nader published “Unsafe at Any Speed” the same year. Laws were passed to encourage use of seatbelts and discourage drunk driving, and the rate of death and serious injury has fallen even as the sales and use of automobiles have risen. These laws were disputed by automakers and the public but they worked well.

Ever since, most laws which govern cars have trended toward increasing their efficiency, decreasing their damage to the environment, and improving their safety. These laws have arguably not gone far enough. Because many of the pickup trucks and SUVs which are sold to suburban families who dodge potholes and puddles are very heavy, they are exempt from stricter U.S. fuel economy standards. And I would be filled with regret if I did not remind you of the extensive lobbying orchestrated by automakers over the past century-and-a-bit to make walking across a road a crime, reduce taxes on auto sales, and lots of other things.

Lawmakers should of course be attentive to instances where everyone who knows about a topic is telling them it is impossible to do in the way they are proposing. It is not possible to create encryption which ensures no criminals or rogue states are able to intrude but permits execution of a secret wiretap warrant.

But can you really blame lawmakers when regulations are disputed by industry representatives? It sure does not help when the press and public repeat the myths they have created. If industries want to be regulated more effectively, they need to start by being honest. The press can help by more carefully scrutinizing corporate claims; even conservative, business-focused publications should be able to see that simply opposing regulation by parroting public relations pap is a worthless use of their time and words.

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Martin Coulter, Reuters:

From Friday, a host of internet giants – including Meta’s Facebook and Instagram platforms, Apple’s online App Store, and a handful of Google services – will face new obligations in the EU, including preventing harmful content from spreading, banning or limiting certain user-targeting practices, and sharing some internal data with regulators and associated researchers.

The EU is seen as the global leader in tech regulation, with more wide-ranging pieces of legislation – such as the Digital Markets Act and the AI Act – on the way. The bloc’s success in implementing such laws will influence the introduction of similar rules around the world.

Kim Mackrael and Sam Schechner, Wall Street Journal:

While the new laws apply only in Europe, their effect will ripple globally. Brussels’ regulations are often templates for others, which typically leads tech platforms to implement some changes worldwide. And the breadth of the rules is feeding a shift toward a compliance culture within some companies that originated in the techno-libertarian hothouse of Silicon Valley.


“This is a Glass-Steagall moment for big tech,” said Brian Wieser, a tech analyst and former investment banker, referring to the Depression-era law that reined in banks. “They’re going from effectively no regulation to heavy regulation.”

There is understandable anxiety about these robust and thorough regulations; I have also expressed concerns. However, I am just as excited by the possibilities of requiring some of the most valuable corporations on the planet to actually compete with smaller players on more even terms. The next several years could be some of the industry’s most exciting and dynamic — or, to use a term Silicon Valley will understand, some of the most disruptive.

Ashley Stewart, in a report for Insider that is probably paywalled but I know you are very clever:

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan told employees this month that the company was making the surprising decision to send some workers back to the office regularly because its flagship remote-work product didn’t allow employees to build as much trust or be as innovative as in the office, according to a leaked meeting recording viewed by Insider.


The top reason for the mandate, Yuan said at the August 3 meeting, is that it’s difficult for employees to get to know each other and build trust remotely.

“In our early days, we all knew each other,” Yuan said. “Over the past several years, we’ve hired so many new ‘Zoomies’ that it’s really hard to build trust.”

I did not buy the gotcha framing of many reports of Yuan’s back-to-the-office directive as I think different approaches can work well for different organizations. A hybrid approach is not a rejection of Zoom’s premise. But these trust-based claims are something Zoom markets itself on. According to Zoom itself, 95% of its customers “report a greater sense of trust” — though it does not clarify in what context. Trust in the software? Trust in each other? Happily, Zoom itself clarifies this on a different page, where it says video conferencing “[i]ncreases openness with others they are communicating with and builds trust” compared to audio-only calls, chat, or email.

It seems like Zoom is trying to thread a needle very carefully in marketing its product as a replacement for in-person meetings for many organizations and an essential part of working remotely, but that its own organization is better with a more mixed approach. Imagine being the copywriter responsible for conveying that in a convincing manner.

Brian Heater, TechCrunch:

In a surprise move, Apple this week penned a letter to California state senator Susan Talamantes Eggman, voicing support for SB 244, a “right to repair” bill currently making its way through Sacramento’s State Capitol building.

Apple has, of course, softened its stance on right to repair legislation in recent years, including last year’s addition of a Self-Service Repair program. The offering, which was viewed by many as a preemptive measure against looming state and federal legislation, provides users with rental tools to repair iPhones and Macs at home.

Jason Koebler of 404 Media posted a full copy of Apple’s letter (PDF). If you are interested in how SB 244 evolved over time, I have uploaded a comparison between the bill text introduced and the latest version. One update that caught my eye is that, according to the definition on line 56, a “desktop computer, laptop, tablet, or cellphone” are all considered “general” or “all-purpose” computers.

Pressure works.

Kevin Jiang, the Toronto Star:

Just months after the advent of ChatGPT late last year, hundreds of websites have already been identified as using generative artificial intelligence to spew thousands of AI-written, often misinformation-laden “news” stories online.

As the world nears a “precipice” of AI-driven misinformation, experts tell the Star that the tech industry pushback to Canada’s Online News Act — namely Google and Meta blocking trusted Canadian news sources for Canadians — may only make the issue worse.

This is not just a future concern: people affected by wildfires in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories have been unable to share news stories with each other on Meta’s platforms. That is obviously a horrible side effect, though better than what happened last time Meta issued national restrictions.

Also, I have no time for people who treat the exchange of news and information on Facebook or Instagram — or other social media platforms — as a mistake or some kind of dumbing-down of society. It is anything but. People moved their community connections online long ago, and their hosting is migrated to wherever those people congregate. And, for a long time now, that has been Facebook.

But, while it is Meta that is affecting the distribution of news on its platform, it is for reasons that can best be described as a response to a poorly designed piece of legislation — even though that law is not yet in effect. If Meta is told that it must soon pay for each news link shared publicly on its platforms, it is obviously going to try its best to avoid that extra variable expense. The only way it can effectively do that is to prohibit these links. It is terrible that Meta is standing firm but this feels like a fairly predictable consequence of a law based on links, and it seems like the federal government was ill prepared as it is now requesting Meta to stand down and permit news links again.

The irony of the fallout from this law is that any supposed news links in a Canadian’s Facebook or Instagram feed will be, by definition, not real news. The advertising businesses of Google and Meta surely played a role in encouraging more publishers to move behind paywalls, but they were not solely responsible. News has always been expensive to produce and that puts it at odds with a decades-long business obsession of maximizing profit and minimizing resources and expenses no matter how much it strains quality. Research and facts and original reporting will increasingly be treated like luxuries — in the same was as well made long-lasting products — if we do not change those priorities.

Joseph Cox at the newly launched 404 Media:

This is the result of a secret weapon criminals are selling access to online that appears to tap into an especially powerful set of data: the target’s credit header. This is personal information that the credit bureaus Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion have on most adults in America via their credit cards. Through a complex web of agreements and purchases, that data trickles down from the credit bureaus to other companies who offer it to debt collectors, insurance companies, and law enforcement.

A 404 Media investigation has found that criminals have managed to tap into that data supply chain, in some cases by stealing former law enforcement officer’s identities, and are selling unfettered access to their criminal cohorts online. The tool 404 Media tested has also been used to gather information on high profile targets such as Elon Musk, Joe Rogan, and even President Joe Biden, seemingly without restriction. 404 Media verified that although not always sensitive, at least some of that data is accurate.


“It should absolutely not be allowed,” Rob Shavell, CEO of DeleteMe said of credit bureaus feeding credit header data to wider industries. Of all the entities that are the root cause of this data, “the credit bureaus are number one,” Shavell added. “They are the ones that should be subject to the strictest compliance and ultimately be held to a higher privacy standard by the federal government and by state governments than they are being,” he said.

The newest part of what Cox found appears to be the Telegram bot which automates the lookup based on stolen credentials, but there are hundreds of services which offer more-or-less similar information because of how leaky the credit reporting industry is. You can look on DeleteMe’s site and find a whole bunch of websites which promise results, so long as you pinky promise not to break the law.

Even credit reporting agencies themselves have been prone to leaks, reported as recently as January by Brian Krebs, not to mention that whole Equifax thing.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:

When you get a new mortgage they sell your number and this happens.

Chelsey Cox, CNBC, last week:

The White House on Tuesday held a roundtable examining potentially harmful data broker practices, part of an administration wide push to protect Americans’ privacy in the era of AI.

This, like so many privacy issues, has seemed critically important for decades yet has seen little to no progress. At Techdirt, Karl Bode points out two good reasons for that: the industry is rich, and it creates a workaround to avoid messy things like civil liberties.

Gerrit De Vynck, Washington Post:

A paper from U.K.-based researchers suggests that OpenAI’s ChatGPT has a liberal bias, highlighting how artificial intelligence companies are struggling to control the behavior of the bots even as they push them out to millions of users worldwide.

The study, from researchers at the University of East Anglia, asked ChatGPT to answer a survey on political beliefs as it believed supporters of liberal parties in the United States, United Kingdom and Brazil might answer them. They then asked ChatGPT to answer the same questions without any prompting, and compared the two sets of responses.

The survey in question is the Political Compass.

Arvind Narayanan on Mastodon:

The “ChatGPT has a liberal bias” paper has at least 4 *independently* fatal flaws:

– Tested an older model, not ChatGPT.

– Used a trick prompt to bypass the fact that it actually refuses to opine on political q’s.

– Order effect: flipping q’s in the prompt changes bias from Democratic to Republican.

– The prompt is very long and seems to make the model simply forget what it’s supposed to do.

Colin Fraser appears to be responsible for finding that the order of how the terms appear affects the political alignment displayed by ChatGPT.

Narayanan and Sayash Kapoor tried to replicate the paper’s findings:

Here’s what we found. GPT-4 refused to opine in 84% of cases (52/62), and only directly responded in 8% of cases (5/62). (In the remaining cases, it stated that it doesn’t have personal opinions, but provided a viewpoint anyway). GPT-3.5 refused in 53% of cases (33/62), and directly responded in 39% of cases (24/62).

It is striking to me how the claims of this paper were widely repeated with apparent confirmation that tech companies are responsible for pushing the liberal beliefs that are ostensibly a reflection of mainstream news outlets.

Andrew Cunningham, Ars Technica:

You can still do a clean install of Windows, and it’s arguably easier than ever, with official Microsoft-sanctioned install media easily accessible and Windows Update capable of grabbing most of the drivers that most computers need for basic functionality. The problem is that a “clean install” doesn’t feel as clean as it used to, and unfortunately for us, it’s an inside job — it’s Microsoft, not third parties, that is primarily responsible for the pile of unwanted software and services you need to decline or clear away every time you do a new Windows install.

This is obviously not isolated to operating systems; similar nags show up in third-party software, encouraging you to upgrade to the next subscription level or add more features. It is relentless. The subscription model proliferation has radically upended the relationship we have as users with vendors into a tense never-ending contract.

But it is dirtier to find in operating systems. Cunningham compares Microsoft’s approach primarily to Apple’s, but says similar upsells and self-promotional junk are present across products from Amazon, Google, and other device makers who encourage or require “some kind of account sign-in, the better to lure you into a wider subscription ecosystem that can keep shareholder-mandated continuous growth going“. Because these operating systems are the platforms upon which the entire digital ecosystem is built, they should face greater scrutiny by users, at the very least, if not by regulators. We are increasingly inundated by messages from the richest businesses on the planet that they are not yet extracting enough money from us.

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Eric Seufert:

Twitter has seen a dramatic decrease in its Top Downloaded chart position across both platforms since the app was renamed to X. Why? The situation presents a fascinating case study at the intersection of brand equity and mobile platform dynamics.

John Gruber:

At this moment, Threads is #2 on the App Store’s top free downloads list, and X is #51. On the Play Store, Threads is #6 and X is (scroll, scroll, scroll…) #66. This rebranding would be a firing offense if the mastermind behind it didn’t own the company. (So much for Threads being the one that’s supposedly gasping for air.)

In the list of all free apps in the Canadian App Store, Threads is #3, while Twitter is #76 because it is now called “X” and that character means so little it is literally used as a placeholder for people to think of other, better stuff. Once installed, it remains a nagging pain. Because I have no idea where this app is on my iPhone, I launch it by through Spotlight; typing “tw” no longer shows the app and it takes me a beat or two to remember what its new name is.

It is remarkable to me how the only social network that really clicked with me and which I used steadily for over fifteen years became, in less than a year, something I barely think about or interact with.