Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death

Jia Tolentino, writing in the New Yorker:

Last September, a very twenty-first-century type of story appeared on the company blog of the ride-sharing app Lyft. “Long-time Lyft driver and mentor, Mary, was nine months pregnant when she picked up a passenger the night of July 21st,” the post began. “About a week away from her due date, Mary decided to drive for a few hours after a day of mentoring.” You can guess what happened next.

[…]

Mary’s story looks different to different people. Within the ghoulishly cheerful Lyft public-relations machinery, Mary is an exemplar of hard work and dedication — the latter being, perhaps, hard to come by in a company that refuses to classify its drivers as employees. Mary’s entrepreneurial spirit — taking ride requests while she was in labor! — is an “exciting” example of how seamless and flexible app-based employment can be. Look at that hustle! You can make a quick buck with Lyft anytime, even when your cervix is dilating.

There is a very real and largely-unaddressed human cost behind the convenience offered by startups like Lyft, Uber, and Fiverr. “Gig economy” jobs are a uniquely new way of blending the anxiety of freelance work with the pay of a minimum-wage job — and sometimes, well below that. This is not fair to those participating in these jobs today, nor is it an effective long-term economic backbone.

Drawing Connections Between Apple’s Acquisitions of Workflow and Siri

A couple of interesting connections have emerged between Apple’s acquisitions of Siri and Workflow — in 2010 and yesterday, respectively — and I thought they were worth noting.

First is the note that Workflow is remaining in the App Store post-acquisition. This parallels the way Apple handled the standalone Siri app after they bought it in April 2010. Greg Kumparak, in an October 2011 report for TechCrunch:

Long before today’s announcement that the Siri Voice Assistant would be an integral part of iOS, Siri was a third-party app. It wasn’t as pretty, and not nearly as well integrated, but it had one big advantage: it ran on just about any iOS device.

Then Apple bought Siri. It immediately became clear that Apple was making a push into voice — and yet, the app stayed on the store. It lived on un-updated, but it lived on nevertheless. Then Apple introduced Siri… exclusively for the iPhone 4S.

And with that, the life of Siri (the application) came to an end, making way for Siri (the feature).

It’s terrific that Workflow is remaining in the App Store — even better, it’s now free — but it’s also a reminder that it will, one day, vanish into the ether as a standalone app.

That brings me to an excellent article from Khoi Vinh speculating on the future of Workflow and one potential reason for Apple’s purchase:

But this move also hints at what the future of Apple’s strategy for Siri, smart assistants and home automation might be. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to guess that Workflow could play a key role as an elegant, easy-to-learn scripting environment for many if not all of Apple’s future endeavors in cloud-connected, AI-powered, voice-enabled platforms. When you look at competitors like Amazon’s Alexa platform, Google Assistant, Cortana, etc., they all lack a truly elegant, easy-to-master entryway for casual users who want to customize their experiences—and that’s exactly what Workflow gives Apple. (Though don’t be surprised if these other players acquire Zapier or IFTTT soon as well.)

I know this is all speculative, but I’d love a way to build custom workflows for Siri. It could be like HomeKit’s scenes feature, but for my entire phone — and, ideally, all of my Apple devices. There’s tremendous potential there, especially with the effortless UI that the Workflow team conjured up and the increasingly seamless way iCloud-connected devices are communicating with each other.

U.S. Senate Republicans Vote to Lift Key Internet Privacy Protections

Hamza Shaban, Buzzfeed:

The Senate voted Thursday to make it easier for internet service providers to share sensitive information about their customers, a first step in overturning landmark privacy rules that consumer advocates and Democratic lawmakers view as crucial protections in the digital age. The vote was passed along party lines, 50-48, with all but two Republicans voting in favor of the repeal and every Democrat voting against it. Two Republican Senators did not vote.

Passed by the Federal Communications Commission in the final months of the Obama presidency, the privacy rules prohibited internet providers like Comcast and Verizon from selling customer information, including browsing history and location data, without first getting consent. The rules also compelled providers to tell customers about the data they collect, the purpose of that data collection, and to identify the types of third party companies that might be given access to that information.

House Republicans are also expected to vote to lift these privacy protections, so this is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from being signed by the President. Once it does, it will severely hamper the FCC’s ability to pass similar rules in the future, when the commission is not run by someone who is determined to sign away the future of the web because of a personal dogma.

Apple Acquires Workflow

Well, here’s a weird piece of news. Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch:

Apple has finalized a deal to acquire Workflow today — a tool that lets you hook together apps and functions within apps in strings of commands to automate tasks. We’ve been tracking this one for a while but were able to confirm just now that the ink on the deal is drying as we speak.

[…]

Workflow the app is being acquired, along with the team of Weinstein, Conrad Kramer and Nick Frey. In a somewhat uncommon move for Apple, the app will continue to be made available on the App Store and will be made free later today.

Back in November, Apple eliminated Sal Soghoian’s position as Product Manager of Automation Technologies — he now works for the Omni Group on automation. At the time, Craig Federighi promised in an email that they have “every intention to continue [their] support for the great automation technologies in MacOS”. This acquisition makes me think that they’d like to extend automation support to iOS in a more comprehensive way, too, and is the first indication I’ve seen that Apple is continuing to take automation seriously after such a worrying November. What shape that will take, I have no idea.

Pixure and PanelKit

Federico Viticci, MacStories:

Pixure is Louis D’hauwe’s excellent pixel art studio app for iOS that lets you create retro-styled illustrations. Pixure was already best suited for the iPad’s bigger display, but the latest version 2.2 adds PanelKit – a UI framework created by D’hauwe himself to turn traditional iPad popovers into floating panels.

I am genuinely surprised that Apple approved this, given the troubles Steven Troughton-Smith and Cabel Sasser had with getting clearance for conceptually multi-windowed app environments on the iPad. I hope that progress keeps being made in this direction. While something as sophisticated as the MacOS UI would likely translate poorly to the iPad, basic multi-window functionality combined with reduced modality would make the system leaps-and-bounds better for multitasking. Even something as simple as dragging and dropping between apps in Split View seems like a basic yet vital enhancement.

iTunes 12.6 Adds Cross-Device Movie Rentals

It’s not often that I agree with a headline containing the word “finally”, but it feels apt here. Juli Clover, MacRumors:

iTunes 12.6 introduces a “Rent once, watch anywhere” feature that lets iTunes users watch iTunes movie rentals across all devices with iOS 10.3 or tvOS 10.2.

Prior to this update, an iTunes movie was only available on a single device at a time. When a movie rented on a Mac was transferred to an iPhone, iPad, or iPod using USB, the movie became unavailable from an iTunes library until returned to the Mac.

A movie rented on an iOS device or an Apple TV was not previously watchable on other devices and could not be transferred between devices.

Basically, a rental is now attached to an account rather than a device. It doesn’t really matter whether the nine year delay in introducing this is the fault of Apple or movie studios, the fact is that it was a crappy situation that I ran into more than once. I imagine others have run into the same issue, particularly if they started the rental on an iOS device, quite reasonably assuming that they could pick it up on their Apple TV later.

iOS 10.3 and tvOS 10.2 have not yet been released.

Clips

Also announced today in the midst of Apple’s press release blitz is a new app called Clips. It won’t be released until April and requires iOS 10.3, which isn’t out yet, but it’s clear what the app is and what it will do: it’s a copy of the sharing features in Instagram and Snapchat, using other networks — especially Messages — as its social sharing outlet.

Stephen Nellis of Reuters explains how Clips could be a serious Snap and Facebook competitor:

Apple has a huge number of users for Messages, the flagship app for short notes that is built into the iPhone’s iOS 10 software. Apple does not say how many people use the app, but it does say that there more than 1 billion iOS devices on the market and that 79 percent of them run iOS 10.

Apple also says that Messages is the most commonly used app on iOS devices, giving the company potentially up to 800 million users for its latest messaging platform. Snap, by contrast, has 161 million daily active users. While Apple’s Clips competitor will technically be a separate app from Messages, it will be tied closely to it for the ability share Clips videos with other Apple users.

This is written horribly. Nellis implies that Messages is on 79% of iOS devices by stating that Messages is built into iOS 10, and that iOS 10 is on 79% of iOS devices. Therefore, he surmises, Clips has a potential market of 800 million users.

Using that same math, the Snapchat app has a far greater market potential because it only requires iOS 9 or newer, representing 95% of all iOS devices. Yet its growth has come to a crawl.

I’m not convinced, though, that Clips is a serious competitor. I think it’s a perfectly fine app; the Live Titles feature — which makes onscreen captions based on what’s being said — is especially cool. But Clips is separate from Messages, so there are more steps between starting to capture a moment and showing it off.

Also, if this is supposed to run up against Stories, it seems misguided. The whole point of the Stories feature in other apps is that it creates a passive way to view or post a current video-based status that will expire at some point. Sending individual video messages to a bunch of your friends generates more friction. If they’re trying to take on Instagram and Snap in broader terms, that’s an extremely tall order, and Apple has a rough history with building ecosystem-constrained social networks.

Even if Clips is quietly successful as a standalone product where only the results are shown on other social networks, what’s to stop Facebook from duplicating its features. Heck, by announcing it weeks before it’s set to launch, why wouldn’t Facebook or Snap add a Live Titles-esque feature to their apps as well?

Update: Maybe this is Apple’s play for a mobile equivalent to the wildly-successful Photo Booth app on the Mac, but I’d say that ship has long sailed.

Apple’s Spring Cleaning

If Apple is, indeed, holding an April event — as I still think they are — it seems like they had some stuff to get out of the way first. They launched some cool new Watch straps, added a vibrant-looking Product Red version of the iPhones 7 to the mix, and doubled the available storage configurations for the iPhone SE.

The biggest news is probably in the iPad department. While they haven’t updated the iPad Pro lineup, they cleaned up the other parts of the iPad line. The Mini 2 is gone, as is the iPad Air 2. In place of the latter is the new iPad — it’s just called “iPad”. Its full designation is actually “iPad (5th Generation)”, which makes it the successor — in name — to 2012‘s “iPad (4th Generation)”, which is a little bit weird. The renaming does follow the de-Air-ification of Apple’s product naming scheme.

The product itself is a curious blend of the two generations of the iPad Air, and the iPhone 6S. It has the A9 processor of the iPhone, the thickness and weight of the first-generation iPad Air, and the networking capabilities of the iPad Air 2. In a sense, you can think of it as an “iPad SE”. But it also has some limitations: the display is doesn’t have any of the advanced features or wide colour gamut of the iPads Pro — it isn’t even laminated — and it lacks support for the Pencil.

But it’s inexpensive. Really inexpensive. Prices start for 32 GB of storage at just $329 in the US, which is an astonishing deal for those hoping to deploy iPads in a classroom or corporate setting, or anyone who wants an inexpensive tablet with a big screen. It’s $399 for a 128 GB model, which is the same price as the 128 GB iPad Mini 4 — the only remaining variant of that device, as of today.1

So what about the rumoured iPad Pro updates? I’d be surprised if they wait until autumn to introduce new models; by then, the 12.9-inch model would be two years old and virtually untouched in that time. It’s not out of the question, but it seems like a bad guess to me. My best guess is that there’s still an April event planned, and this news dump was a way to refresh a few products without sacrificing stage time. Why announce them in advance of an assumed event? I think it’s a good way to give these products their own space the news cycle2 and help emphasize any updates the iPad Pro line may get, even if it’s not the rumoured all-new 10.5-inch device.

That’s just a guess, though.


  1. I’m surprised the iPad Mini wasn’t bumped to an A9 chip and marketed as the “7.9-inch iPad”. ↩︎

  2. My alternative theory is that they did have an April event planned and had to postpone it, but felt comfortable announcing these products through a press release only. ↩︎

Connecting the Conversation

You’ve probably read Charlie Warzel’s profile for Buzzfeed of Techmeme and its founder Gabe Rivera; yet, you may have missed this excellent followup from Adam Tinworth:

In digital content circle, we talk a lot about ‘content atomisation’, the idea that the publishing packages of the past have been atomised into individual articles found via search or social. In a sense, what Techmeme does is reconnect those atoms into molecules of news, allowing you to track not just the most popular articles, but to explore the interconnections between them and other articles, which respond to them or follow them up. [Those] connections both inform the ratings, but also guide to the reader into the broader context of the story.

It’s such a compelling idea that I’m surprised that nobody is really working on it in any other way. A decade back, the blog platform makers were really interested in connecting up conversations online. That led to the advent of standards like Trackback and Pingback, both of which got steadily buried under ever-increasing volumes of spam. And, to add to the woes, much of the discussion around any single article is now buried away in private spaces like Facebook.

But still, it seems a strange gap in the technology of the web that it’s surprisingly hard for the casual reader to easily find responses and follow-ups to something they’ve read.

As it happens, hot news and surrounding analysis does have a place on the web: Techmeme’s companion sites for media and the press at Mediagazer, celebrity gossip at Wesmirch, and the original political news aggregator Memeorandum.

Unfortunately, of all of the sites under the Techmeme umbrella, only Techmeme and Mediagazer have human editors. That means that sites like Memeoradum — which draws upon the conversation around a particular story — can be swayed by influential yet unreliable sources. In an era of stories that span the gamut from misleading to outright false, that is of particular importance. Memeorandum may not be a fact-checking site, but it ought to prioritize news articles that are, well, truthful.

Recode: Anthony Levandowski Was Hired as a Consultant at Uber While He Founded Otto

A small but truly amazing update on that Uber-Otto lawsuit. Johana Bhuiyan, Recode:

To bolster its suit, Alphabet laid out a detailed timeline of Levandowski’s relationship with Uber executives, including CEO Travis Kalanick. According to Alphabet, that relationship dates back to the summer of 2015, approximately six months before Levandowski even left Alphabet.

Now, sources are adding more to that claim. Kalanick hired Levandowski as a consultant to Uber’s fledgling self-driving effort as early as February 2016, six months before Levandowski publicly got his company off the ground, according to three sources.

It’s not entirely uncommon for engineers to consult for other companies, but the timing of Levandowski’s hiring at Uber so close to the initial formation of Otto raises a number of questions.

You don’t say. Questions such as “Would this look a little funny to the employer I left just a few weeks prior?” or “Is this a potentially suspicious arrangement should said past employer decide to sue my future employer?” Those are the important questions worth asking.

On a Commitment to Diversity at Apple

Late last month at Apple’s shareholders meeting, attendees overwhelmingly sided with Apple in their disagreement with a proposal to improve diversity amongst the company’s leadership.

Natalie Walters of the Street:

In this year’s proposal, Maldonado and Zevin Asset Management requested that Apple be required to increase the diversity of senior management and its board of directions. The lack of diversity is a “business risk.”

“Shareholders believe that companies with comprehensive diversity programs, and strong commitment to implementation, enhance their long-term value, reducing the company’s potential legal and reputational risks associated with workplace discrimination and building a reputation as a fair employer,” the proposal said. In addition, a more diverse board would increase creativity and reduce the “groupthink” at the company, they argued.

Apple argued that its efforts to increase diversity are “much broader” than the “accelerated recruitment policy” that the proposal puts forth. Instead of focusing on Apple’s senior management and Board, the company takes a more “holistic” view extending to anyone who wants to work in the tech sector in the future.

This is the second year running that Antonio Maldonado’s proposal has been shot down, and for a similar reason as last year: Apple seems content with the direction of their current diversity efforts.

Apple’s overwhelmingly white and male1 management team is also one of the closest-watched in the industry. While they haven’t experienced the kind of high-profile top-down discriminatory issues seen at other major tech firms, they do run the same risks as any other somewhat-homogenous ecosystem. They seem to be aware of that, given the way that they’ve improved diversity in new hires, but that doesn’t address more senior management positions.

Improving the diversity of the board would be a big start, as would any changes to the senior management shown on the company’s website. Making these kinds of big strides would show a seriousness to their efforts that, I think, would be more impactful than their half-baked “holistic” statement.


  1. According to their latest figures, management and leadership positions are 72% male and 67% white. ↩︎

Uber President Jeff Jones Quits After Six Months on the Job

I regret not saving my — frankly, excellentJ. Bruce Ismay analogy for this resignation.

Update: Okay, I admit it. I really jumped the gun on that analogy. Dave Lee of BBC News:

The backroom manoeuvrings suggest bigger changes at Uber are on the way. Two separate, well-placed sources at the company have told the BBC that Mr Kalanick will likely step down as chief executive soon after the new COO is in place.

I nominate Uber’s management for the 2017 Crunchie award for “Corporate Team Most Named for Ironic Reasons”.

iMessage App Store Growth Slows, According to Sensor Tower

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

According to a new report from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower, there are nearly 5,000 Message-enabled apps – the same number of iOS apps released in year one of the App Store. That should be a promising figure, given how much the iOS App Store has grown over time – it has 2.2 million apps as of January, 2017, Apple said.

But unlike the iOS App Store, the iMessage App Store is already seeing the developer interest and excitement wearing off.

From its launch in September, 2016 and the end of October, Sensor Tower says the number of iMessage-enabled apps had grown approximately 116 percent to nearly 1,100. By November, that figure had grown another 108 percent to around 2,250 apps. But by December – notably a month when developers rush to be ready for the numerous users unwrapping new iPhones and installing apps – growth slowed to 65 percent, bringing the store to 3,700 iMessage apps.

Growth continued to fall in the new year, with 18 percent growth from December, 2016 to January, 2017 followed by 9 percent growth from January to February, 2017.

I’ve long been optimistic about the potential for iMessage apps. I use them all the time. But it isn’t the new gold rush I think many developers hoped it might be. iMessage apps are, of course, much more limited in their utility and possibilities, and the novelty factor has worn off. But another big reason for this drop is surely that the iMessage App Store UI is buried behind a confusing layering of menus, and the app drawer isn’t very scalable.

Apple has done a good job of not overpowering the fundamental features of Messages with the new features added in iOS 10, but those features now might be too hidden and hard to discover. Balancing those two aspects of Messages is a tricky design problem that I hope is considered for the next major version of iOS.

Google Says They Will Revamp Ad Policies After Boycotts

Some more followup for a story I covered yesterday, when the Guardian announced that they would be suspending their Google ad buy since their ads were appearing on extremist and hateful websites and YouTube videos. The Guardian called for other brands to join them, and join them they did.

Joe Mayes and Jeremy Kahn, Bloomberg:

[…] the U.K. government and the Guardian newspaper pulled ads from the video site, stepping up pressure on YouTube to police content on its platform.

France’s Havas SA, the world’s sixth-largest advertising and marketing company, pulled all its U.K. clients’ ads from Google and YouTube on Friday after failing to get assurances from Google that the ads wouldn’t appear next to offensive material. Those clients include wireless carrier O2, Royal Mail Plc, government-owned British Broadcasting Corp., Domino’s Pizza and Hyundai Kia, Havas said in a statement.

Some good news though: Google is giving advertisers more control over placement. Ronan Harris of Google:

We’ve begun a thorough review of our ads policies and brand controls, and we will be making changes in the coming weeks to give brands more control over where their ads appear across YouTube and the Google Display Network.

Google provides no specifics, and I’m curious to see how this could feasibly work. Harris prefaced Google’s announcement by stating that their ability to control ad placement is fairly limited:

However, with millions of sites in our network and 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, we recognize that we don’t always get it right. In a very small percentage of cases, ads appear against content that violates our monetization policies.

There are some well-known websites and YouTube channels that most people would reasonably consider hateful, bigoted, and xenophobic, but there are also plenty that aren’t as well-known. How will this be policed? Reporting offenders is not in the interest of those who frequent the kinds of websites and channels targeted by these changes.

When an Ad Is Not an Ad

Some followup on yesterday’s story about Google Home devices playing an apparent ad for Beauty and the Beast, in which I mocked Google’s claim that it wasn’t an ad. Turns out that it, truly, wasn’t, according to a followup statement obtained by Catalin Cimpanu of Bleeping Computer:

“This wasn’t intended to be an ad,” said a Google spokesperson regarding the incident. “What’s circulating online was a part of our My Day feature, where after providing helpful information about your day, we sometimes call out timely content. We’re continuing to experiment with new ways to surface unique content for users and we could have done better in this case.”

Disney may not have paid Google to tell Home users about their new movie, but that’s what it felt like to a lot of people. And now Google really, really knows that their users won’t tolerate anything resembling an ad on their Home devices.

Alphabet’s Autonomous Cars Had to Be Adjusted in Every Mile They Drove

Johana Bhuiyan, Recode:

The top line: Uber’s robot cars are steadily increasing the number of miles driven autonomously. But the figures on rider experience — defined as a combination of how many times drivers have to take over and how smoothly the car drives — are still showing little progress.

[…]

In January, the cars only drove 5,000 miles. At that point, however, the company only had about 20 active vehicles, mainly in Pittsburgh. By February, the company’s cars were driving themselves around 18,000 miles a week.

[…]

For example: During the week ending March 8, the 43 active cars on the road only drove an average of close to 0.8 miles before the safety driver had to take over for one reason or another.

No word on how many red lights were run.

See Also: The Uber Bombshell About to Drop.

The Guardian Pulls All Google Advertising

Jane Martinson of the Guardian:

The Guardian has withdrawn all its online advertising from Google and YouTube after it emerged that its ads were being inadvertently placed next to extremist material.

Ads for the Guardian’s membership scheme are understood to have been placed alongside a range of extremist material after an agency acting on the media group’s behalf used Google’s AdX ad exchange.

David Pemsel, the Guardian’s chief executive, wrote to Google to say that it was “completely unacceptable” for its advertising to be misused in this way.

He said the Guardian would be withdrawing its advertising until Google can “provide guarantees that this ad misplacement via Google and YouTube will not happen in the future”.

I think this is a fine stance for the Guardian to take, but I also saw a Google ad in the sidebar of this very article. I don’t intend to conflate the buying of ad space with the display of ads, nor imply any hypocrisy on the Guardian’s part. But this goes to show that the automated buying and provision of ad space across the web creates unintended effects for everyone. It’s in an advertiser’s best interests to select their most relevant audience, but the slots on the Guardian’s website could potentially go to advertisers that the website’s readers would disagree with.

Similarly, I’ve seen plenty of ads from Carbon — the provider of the ad in the right-hand column of this website — promoting marketing automation tools that are largely built on mass data collection and retention, something I frequently criticize. However, I trust that Carbon won’t allow an ad from Breitbart or some neo-Nazi organization.

No matter how much publishers trust advertisers, the only way this can be resolved reliably is to eliminate the automated buying and selling of ad space across larger networks. Every publisher — or small, select, and invite-only group of like-minded publishers — must retain their own inventory. That’s massively difficult and, as a result, is unlikely to be the future of ads on the web. But so long as ads are distributed across huge networks where little control is held by advertisers and publishers alike, there will always be instances of disagreement between advertising and where it is displayed.

Google Says That the Ad That’s Running on Some Home Devices Isn’t an Ad

CaptainCapitoni” on Reddit:

This morning while I was getting ready for work, I did my usual “Okay Google, good morning”. After information about the time and weather, my google home said something along the lines of

By the way, Beauty and The Beast opens in theaters today. In this version, Belle is the inventor. Sounds more like it to me.

I’m not a fan of ads on this device. I don’t believe I’ve done any searching for the film either, so I think it’s not due to perceived interest. Has anyone else heard similar ads?

Another user, “drak0bsidian”, says that they also heard the ad, and Bryson Meunier posted a recording of it on Twitter.

The Verge’s Chris Welch asked Google about it, and they provided him with some grade-A bullshit in response:

This isn’t an ad; the beauty in the Assistant is that it invites our partners to be our guest and share their tales.

I don’t care how much storytelling tinsel an advertisement happens to be wrapped in — an ad is an ad.

I looked through Google’s support documentation for Home and even downloaded the app looking for anything that would specifically state that the device could be used for advertising. Nothing on the Google Home website implies that ads would start running on the device. The Google Home FAQ only vaguely nods at anything promotional on the device:

First and foremost, we use data to make our services faster, smarter, and more useful to you, such as by providing better search results and timely traffic updates. Data also helps protect you from malware, phishing, and other suspicious activity. For example, we warn you when you try to visit dangerous websites. Also, on surfaces where we show ads, we use data to show you ads that are relevant and useful, and to keep our services free for everyone.

But there’s no mention of whether Google Home is an advertising “surface”, and audio ads are not one of the types shown in any category on Google‘s advertising site.

Maybe users will react to this like they would towards the ads on radio stations or Spotify’s free tier, but I wouldn’t want this in my apartment. Imagine waking up in the morning and asking Google about your new emails, only to hear it tell you about a new movie or some product. Gross.

Update: Drew Pickard on Twitter:

RE: the text of Google’s response to the Beauty and the Beast “Ad”

It’s another ad. “BE OUR GUEST” is a song from the movie.

wtf

Can’t wait to meet Google’s new PR team of Gaston and a talking candlestick.

Update: According to Tim Bradshaw, Google has removed the ad.

Genius Will De-Emphasize Web Annotations in Favour of Video

Casey Newton of the Verge:

Genius, which raised $56.9 million on the promise that it would one day annotate the entire internet, has been losing its minds. In January, the company quietly laid off a quarter of its staff, with the bulk of the cuts coming from the engineering department. In a post on the Genius blog at the time, co-founder Tom Lehman told employees that Genius planned to shift its emphasis away from the annotation platform that once attracted top-tier investors in favor of becoming a more video-focused media company.

While Genius has done some incredibly dumb things over its short existence, it is truly a brilliant product. More than anything, its simplicity is key to its appeal. A move into video explanations feels like investor meddling more than it does a conscious strategy change.

This move strikes me as a symptom of a broader cultural condition in Silicon Valley that emphasizes rapid growth and significant investment. Genius is the kind of product that probably could have existed just fine without investors, lots of staff, or big offices. Sure, it may have taken longer to arrive where the company is today, but they wouldn’t have to take on the baggage of VC whims or high overhead. As a result, they’d be able to keep the company true to what it does best.

Justice Department Lays Charges in Yahoo Intrusion

Despite InfoArmor’s doubts, the Justice Department is charging two FSB agents and two hackers-for-hire with the breach of 500 million accounts. Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post:

The Justice Department announced Wednesday the indictments of two Russian spies and two criminal hackers in connection with the heist of 500 million Yahoo user accounts in 2014, marking the first U.S. criminal cyber charges ever against Russian government officials.

The indictments target two members of the Russian intelligence agency FSB, and two hackers hired by the Russians.

The charges include hacking, wire fraud, trade secret theft and economic espionage, according to officials. The indictments are part of the largest hacking case brought by the United States.

The New York Times has a copy of the full indictment.

Hacking Back

Brian Krebs:

Recently, I heard from a security professional whose close friend received a targeted attempt to phish his Apple iCloud credentials. The phishing attack came several months after the friend’s child lost his phone at a public park in Virginia. The phish arrived via text message and claimed to have been sent from Apple. It said the device tied to his son’s phone number had been found, and that its precise location could be seen for the next 24 hours by clicking a link embedded in the text message.

That security professional source — referred to as “John” for simplicity’s sake — declined to be named or credited in this story because some of the actions he took to gain the knowledge presented here may run afoul of U.S. computer fraud and abuse laws.

Vindication is sweet, but the actions that “John” took would, of course, be impossible for most people. Even identifying a suspicious site can be difficult, especially as websites continue to coalesce around a handful of shared design motifs that are easy to replicate. So long as we rely upon passwords, phishing will continue to be a common and reasonably successful method for criminals to steal login credentials.

Perhaps it would be possible for Safari to automatically identify suspected phishing sites by comparing samples of the source code with known Apple ID login pages. Or, maybe Safari could alert users who use the same login details as their Apple ID on an insecure site.

Silicon Valley Is Failing Many, Including Women and Persons of Colour

Liza Mundy, in a cover story for the Atlantic:

As Bethanye Blount’s and Susan Wu’s examples show, succeeding in tech as a woman requires something more treacherous than the old adage about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. It’s more like doing everything backwards and in heels while some guy is trying to yank at your dress, and another is telling you that a woman can’t dance as well as a man, oh, and could you stop dancing for a moment and bring him something to drink?

Such undermining is one reason women today hold only about a quarter of U.S. computing and mathematical jobs—a fraction that has actually fallen slightly over the past 15 years, even as women have made big strides in other fields. Women not only are hired in lower numbers than men are; they also leave tech at more than twice the rate men do. It’s not hard to see why. Studies show that women who work in tech are interrupted in meetings more often than men. They are evaluated on their personality in a way that men are not. They are less likely to get funding from venture capitalists, who, studies also show, find pitches delivered by men—especially handsome men—more persuasive. And in a particularly cruel irony, women’s contributions to open-source software are accepted more often than men’s are, but only if their gender is unknown.

Some of the solutions attempted by Silicon Valley companies sound like a mix between New Age bullshit, and a handwavey means for discriminatory practices to be acknowledged without committing to change. This is a problem that requires acknowledgement and action to combat deeply-engrained working and cultural styles. Mundy’s piece is a must-read.

Report Claims Lowest Sales Ever on DSLRs and Mirrorless Cameras in 2016

I first read this piece from LensVid — no byline — nearly two weeks ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since:

We shall start in the top left and the amount of cameras produced worldwide. 2010 was the top year ever for the camera industry with 121 million cameras that were produced, since than we have seen a steady decline with a huge drop in 2013 to only 61 million cameras – basically half, and in 2015 we saw another (almost) halving to only 35 million cameras and the most recent number from 2016 brings another huge drop to only 23 million cameras or 35% drop – year-to-year – twice as much as what happened the year before.

Their analysis is generally what you might expect: smartphones have effectively killed the compact point-and-shoot camera, and mirrorless cameras are having a mixed reception. But these are the two bullet points that have had me thinking about this piece:

The DSLR market is shrinking – this was to be expected but it is not because of the rise of mirrorless. Why this is happening is probably a combination of reasons – at the entry level some people who might have considered buying a DSLR a few years back just settle for their smartphone camera which is better than ever and will soon improve even further with dual cameras, smart zoom technologies and more advanced features. At the mid to high end segments – there just isn’t enough innovation to justify replacing gear as often as it used to be and on the more positive side – cameras are quite reliable and replacing a working camera for a new one which doesn’t offer significantly more, just doesn’t make sense to many users.

I remember the days of DSLRs making huge leaps in sensor quality and megapixel count with every iteration. Features like HD video recording made each new generation that much more significant. But now, virtually all of the photographers I know have been comfortable with whatever camera they bought five-to-eight years ago, or even longer.

The biggest innovations of the past few years have been to commoditize higher-end sensors. The Fujifilm GFX 50S and Pentax GFX 645Z have brought medium format sensors to a high-end DSLR price point, while cameras from Canon, Nikon, and even Sony have brought down the price of entry for a full-frame DSLR. I hope this trend continues, because there’s an appreciable difference — even for non-professionals — between the APS-C sensors of consumer DSLRs and full-frame sensors.

Cameras are for older people – you can’t see this in the numbers but we clearly see this all around us – aside from the professional segment – dedicated cameras do not interest the younger generation. The people who are still interested in photography are typically around the ages of 40-60 or more – the same people who maybe shot with analog cameras as youngsters and now have the time and money to invest in photography as a hobby – their children and grandchildren are far less interested in cameras and prefer to use their smartphones.

If they’re going to make their point based on anecdotal evidence, I’ll make my counterpoint based on the same: I’ve seen loads of younger people carrying their DSLRs everywhere. A Canon Rebel is standard fare amongst YouTube vloggers and the skateboarders near where I live. Whenever I head near a retail strip or a mall, I see groups of teenagers that have cameras slung over their shoulders.

If anything, my bet is that it’s actually a more middle-aged demographic that has become disinterested in buying cameras: they’re less interested in video capabilities and experimentation. For many of them, a smartphone’s camera is fine for basic documentation.

The Uber Bombshell About to Drop

A compelling read by Daniel Compton:

In the last few weeks Alphabet filed a lawsuit against Uber. Alphabet and Waymo (Alphabet’s self-driving car company) allege that Anthony Levandowski, an ex-Waymo manager, stole confidential and proprietary information from Waymo, then used it in his own self-driving truck startup, Otto. Uber acquired Otto in August 2016, so the suit was filed against Uber, not Otto.

This alone is a fairly explosive claim, but the subtext of Alphabet’s filing is an even bigger bombshell. Reading between the lines, (in my opinion) Alphabet is implying that Mr Levandowski arranged with Uber to:

  1. Steal LiDAR and other self-driving component designs from Waymo

  2. Start Otto as a plausible corporate vehicle for developing the self-driving technology

  3. Acquire Otto for $680 million

Below, I’ll present the timeline of events, my interpretation, and some speculation on a possible (bad) outcome for Uber.

Even with the head start created by a staff entirely familiar with autonomous vehicles, it is truly unbelievable that Otto could go from being founded in January to running a fully-functional prototype on public roads in May, and then acquired by Uber in August, all in the same year. If the endless stories about Uber’s dreadful internal culture aren’t crippling enough, this might well be.

Prevent Videos From Auto-Playing in MacOS Web Browsers

Kirk McElhearn:

Auto-play videos suck. They use bandwidth, and their annoying sounds get in the way when you’re listening to music and open a web page. I happen to write for a website that uses them, and it annoys me to no end. (My editors have no control over those auto-play videos, alas.)

But you can stop auto-play videos from playing on a Mac. If you use Chrome or Firefox, it’s pretty simple, and the plugins below work both on macOS and Windows; if you use Safari, it’s a bit more complex, but it’s not that hard.

I thought we settled this back in the 1990s when webpages would automatically play some shitty MIDI interpretation of a pop song in the background. Apparently, today’s batch of web-oriented marketing types didn’t get the memo about how interruptive it is to automatically play a video — with sound, in many cases — any time someone tries to read a page on their site.

McElhearn does a good job pulling together all the ways you can stop autoplaying video in the browser of your choice. In Safari and Safari Technology Preview, it requires setting a command-line hidden preference. But if publishers are going to subject their visitors to the scourge that is autoplaying video, it seems apt for there to be a non-hidden browser control. Unfortunately, a policy change in iOS 10 implies that Apple is actually going the other way and encouraging the use of autoplaying video — albeit, without sound.

At the rate this stuff is going, I’ll pretty soon become one of those people who browses the web in plain text. It seems increasingly like a reasonably appealing option.

Update: After disabling inline video playback on the latest MacOS beta and the latest version of Safari Technology Preview, I noticed some unexpected behaviour from YouTube videos. I’ve seen similar reports from others running different combinations of MacOS and Safari, including non-beta versions.

ShatChat

MG Siegler on Facebook’s now-pathological need to copy Snapchat in every app they own:

The ‘Story’ format makes sense in Instagram. From the get-go, it was a visual feed of information. While it was definitely aggressive to put the ‘Stories’ feature front-and-center at the top of every users’ feed, it proved to be a smart move. Not only did it spur usage, if people didn’t want to use the funtionality, they just kept scrolling on down the feed, just as they had always done.

The um, story, is completely different in Messenger. Here, people have their list of contacts and/or groups that they chat with. The most recent conversations — likely the most important — are at the top of that feed. But if you’re anything like me, you’re often scrolling down a bit because you have many regular conversations. And so this screen real estate is insanely valuable. And Messenger puked up this new ‘Day’ nonsense all over it.

Yes, people share photos on Messenger. Undoubtedly a ton. That’s maybe how you try to justify this move to yourself if you’re Facebook. But Messenger is fundamentally about chatting; it’s a utility. Photos may be additive, but they’re not core. You could try to pivot your service into making them core, but that doesn’t mean you should.

For whatever reason, Facebook isn’t content to let their text messaging replacement app be good at just sending text-based messages. About a year ago, they added “bots” to the system, which few people seem to use; now, they’ve cluttered it up with this “Day” feature. Perhaps Messenger Day is supposed to be a visual interpretation of a status message, or just a prompt to get people to use Messenger in a different way. But it seems to come at the cost of making the app less good at messaging.

It’s not just Facebook, of course: Apple is facing discovery problems with iMessage apps, and Google’s Allo app — built around the company’s cleverly-named virtual assistant, Assistant — seems to be struggling as well. But both of these features can be easily ignored within the app; you can still use them for basic messaging. Facebook, on the other hand, seems content to muddy its primary messaging app and create something that feels almost like an alternative Facebook experience. To what end?

MacOS Sierra Logging Spew

Lloyd Chambers (via Michael Tsai):

My 2013 Mac Pro was running a bit noisy and hot for some hours yesterday even while idle. It is normally whisper quiet and all but inaudible. I have seen that behavior before, and it is always caused by some runaway process doing something useless in the background.

MacOS Sierra has been filled with new bugs, too numerous to contemplate. But the one discussed here is what I call the “logging spew” bug: a continuous stream of logging visible in the Console application, and steadily growing the size on disk of the numerous logging files, all of which are 100% useless to 99.999% of users.

The volume of logging in Sierra and iOS 10 alike has been mind-boggling to me. I’ve previously mentioned the bloated size of sysdiagnose files I’ve submitted when reporting bugs, for particularly stupid reasons. I see the same iTunes bug as Chambers:

On a Mac Pro no touch user interface exists, but the engineers at Apple don’t bother to test much any more, so the com.apple.nowplayingtouchui apparently is just going to fail forever.

I used to be able to open Console to diagnose minor system and application issues. Now, I just see a load of these error messages and information about my WiFi connection, neither of which is relevant to me.

Apple Tops Laptop Magazine’s Tech Support List for Third Consecutive Year

Avram Piltch of Laptop Magazine summarized their findings for why they ranked Apple first for the third year in a row:

Apple offers the best tech support in the business, year after year. The company’s website and mobile app are loaded with helpful, step-by-step tutorials and, whether you reach them via phone or live chat, support reps are knowledgeable and friendly. Apple also answered Twitter messages quickly and accurately.

Henry T. Casey wrote up the full report card:

While calls did not go perfectly, Apple’s customer support team provided solutions in a speedy and positive manner. The company does not get any points for finally creating a Twitter support account (and is it too good for Facebook?), but we do applaud the team running that account for the timely, helpful replies.

If Apple wants to improve its support, it should ensure support techs learn about all of the new features so that they can give completely accurate answers to questions on topics such as iCloud Documents. Its Twitter account could also improve by providing answers directly, instead of linking to posts where the content is found. Overall, though, Apple offers the best support of any laptop manufacturer, as it has for many years.

It’s good to hear that Laptop continues to find Apple’s support channels the best in the industry, but I worry that it’s seeing a reduced focus within the company. Yesterday, I linked to a report from MacRumors stating that Apple will no longer be training their Genius Bar staff in Cupertino, or even on real devices.

This is a small thing, but I’m a little concerned about the cumulative effect of changes like these. I noticed a degradation in service quality last year when I found it very difficult for me to get an appointment, through the usual means, for an iPhone battery swap. When I did manage to get an appointment for that recall program, my store — predictably — didn’t have any batteries in stock.

When Marco Arment noted on Twitter that he was also finding it hard to get support for his iPhone 7, a bunch of people replied with their tales of Apple Store support woe: lots of waiting around, parts not in stock, and repeat visits to resolve the same issue. I assume people would be less likely to reply if they weren’t having issues, but there was an alarming volume of replies along similar lines.

All told, the combination of long wait times, hard-to-get appointments, a focus on self-service within the Support app, and less robust Genius training seems like bad news for maintaining Apple’s long-excellent support channels. I hope reviving higher calibre service options is on the company’s radar.

WikiLeaks’ Sensationalized Press Release and Rushed Reporting Created Misleading Stories

Zeynep Tufekci, in an op-ed for the New York Times:

WikiLeaks seems to have a playbook for its disinformation campaigns. The first step is to dump many documents at once — rather than allowing journalists to scrutinize them and absorb their significance before publication. The second step is to sensationalize the material with misleading news releases and tweets. The third step is to sit back and watch as the news media unwittingly promotes the WikiLeaks agenda under the auspices of independent reporting.

The media, to its credit, eventually sorts things out — as it has belatedly started to do with the supposed C.I.A. cache. But by then, the initial burst of misinformation has spread. On social media in particular, the spin and distortion continues unabated. This time around, for example, there are widespread claims on social media that these leaked documents show that it was the C.I.A. that hacked the Democratic National Committee, and that it framed Russia for the hack. (The documents in the cache reveal nothing of the sort.)

WikiLeaks’ tactics put reporters in a tough spot. If they don’t have a story ready after a major information dump like this one, their editors won’t be happy. But those reporters can’t trust WikiLeaks’ accompanying press release, either, because it doesn’t always accurately describe the contents of the leak.

A more accurate angle for reporters might be to write about the leak itself, not the specific claims made in the press release. Not every publication will do that, of course — many of the more conspiracy-oriented “news” websites and Twitter users are already claiming that these documents prove that the CIA was responsible for Buzzfeed reporter Mike Hastings’ death. This is, of course, completely unsubstantiated.

How Siri Learns

Stephen Nellis, Reuters:

At Apple, the company starts working on a new language by bringing in humans to read passages in a range of accents and dialects, which are then transcribed by hand so the computer has an exact representation of the spoken text to learn from, said Alex Acero, head of the speech team at Apple. Apple also captures a range of sounds in a variety of voices. From there, an acoustic model is built that tries to predict words sequences.

Then Apple deploys “dictation mode,” its text-to-speech translator, in the new language, Acero said. When customers use dictation mode, Apple captures a small percentage of the audio recordings and makes them anonymous. The recordings, complete with background noise and mumbled words, are transcribed by humans, a process that helps cut the speech recognition error rate in half.

After enough data has been gathered and a voice actor has been recorded to play Siri in a new language, Siri is released with answers to what Apple estimates will be the most common questions, Acero said. Once released, Siri learns more about what real-world users ask and is updated every two weeks with more tweaks.

For the past year or two, I’ve noticed that Siri’s record for understanding my speech has been outstanding. The lacklustre part is, increasingly, in the comprehension of my intentions. Just as with a real person, it’s not good enough for Siri to simply be able to hear well; it must do something with the information I’ve provided it, and that something needs to be the right thing more often than not.

More Google Rich Snippets Gold

If you search Google for “who invented stairs” or ask Google Home, it will tell you something that beggars belief:

Stairs have become such a commonplace fixture in contemporary architecture that it is easy to forget that they were not invented until 1948, by Swiss architect Werner Bösendörfer.

The source for this is the reputable-sounding cghm.org, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll learn that those initials stand for “Compu-Global Hyper Meganet”. The site is the rightly-proud recipient of the Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence. And their source for the inventor of stairs is, of all things, a parodic “virtual White House tour” site hosted on GeoCities:

While most Presidents were quite adept at negotiating the interior ladders, some found the arrangement unworkable. For that reason, President Benjamin Harrison had an elaborate system of winches and pulleys installed on the White House exterior. Evening passers-by on Pennsylvania Avenue often could catch a glimpse of the President being hoisted to the window of his second floor bedroom. Indeed, those nightly episodes were the genesis of the campaign slogan, “Heave Ho for Harrison!” which the President used extensively during his unsuccessful 1893 campaign.

While the interior staircases at the White House were all installed during the Truman administration, the various exterior stairs were installed piecemeal, with the last being completed in February 1963.

The initial Google query isn’t leading or misleading; it’s a reasonable question that someone might ask. By highlighting one specific answer and presenting it above every other result on the page, the implication is that the answer is authoritatively correct. But, as we’ve seen over the past week, it’s frequently wrong in ways that are conspiratorial, scammy, and literally the opposite of the source article. The Rich Snippets feature works very well for data-based queries — finding out what the weather is going to be, or when Thanksgiving is this year. But it’s terrible at providing answers to questions, and shouldn’t be shown for any queries beyond basic data lookups.

Apple Reportedly Ends Cupertino-Based Genius Bar Training

Joe Rossignol, MacRumors:

For years, Apple has sent new Genius hires to its Infinite Loop headquarters in Cupertino, or sometimes an auxiliary campus in Austin or Atlanta, to receive hands-on training for up to three weeks. Recently, however, Apple appears to have stopped offering these group-oriented trips, according to people familiar with the matter.

Apple’s off-site Genius Training program has been replaced by an in-store, self-guided experience using company-provided reference materials, according to a source. The training now involves watching web-based seminars through the Apple Technical Learning Administration System, or ATLAS, another source said.

At its Cupertino headquarters, Apple had a small training facility with a mock Genius Bar and Macs set aside specifically for trainees to take apart and perform test repairs on. But with the switch to web-based seminars, Apple is allegedly providing “virtual take aparts” only now, with no physical hardware.

Via former Genius Stephen Hackett:

I went to Cupertino for my training in October 2007. While I am confident that the experience has changed in the intermediate decade, I can say that the two weeks I spent in California were well worth it.

I bet most members of the public aren’t aware that their Apple Store technician was trained at Apple’s headquarters. Hackett posted some of his notes from his training, and it’s seems like taking apart real devices with in-person help was beneficial to his learning experience. Disassembling virtual devices while watching a video doesn’t really seem like an adequate substitute.

Uber Says It Won’t Use ‘Greyball’ to Evade Local Authorities Anymore

Johana Bhuiyan, Recode:

Greyball, first exposed by The New York Times, allows the company to create phantom rides for specific users as a way to both track and evade law enforcement.

The company reportedly used the tool to avoid local regulators in markets such as Boston, Las Vegas and Paris, where Uber could not yet legally operate.

But the company says it will continue to use the technology behind Greyball for other purposes such as testing new features. It will stop using it to circumvent government workers trying to catch Uber drivers.

A charitable reading of the Greyball affair is that Uber was concerned about drivers getting busted in cities where the company wasn’t licensed. Instead of the drivers taking heat from local law enforcement, Uber could make use of Greyball to avoid the police. But that’s clearly the wrong process to get approval for ride sharing companies to operate in cities where it isn’t yet allowed. It isn’t an act of protest by Uber; it’s callous disregard for regulations that make it slightly less convenient for them to expand their operations.

Twitter for iOS Gains New Option for Clearing Cache

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

The Twitter app for iOS devices was today updated to version 6.73.1, adding a small but important feature that allows users to have more control over the amount of storage space Twitter uses on an iPhone or iPad.

A new storage setting lets users see how much storage space Twitter is using for cached images and web content, and it offers an option for clearing stored data. Users can choose to clear Media storage or Web storage independently. Some Twitter users appear to have a dedicated “Storage” section, while others are seeing the information listed under “Data usage,” so it’s not clear what the final storage UI will look like.

Developers should, of course, be taking care of cache management and cleanup in their apps, but apps with bulky caches are widespread on iOS. Snapchat is currently occupying well over 600 MB on my iPhone, which seems like a lot for an app where stuff is supposed to disappear.1 Tweetbot is using over 100 MB of storage, even though the app is only 7 MB, and Yelp is taking up 52 MB of space with its cache. Instagram occupies over 300 MB on my iPhone.

None of these figures are very large individually but, collectively, I’d conservatively estimate that I have about 1 GB of cached data on my iPhone that could be purged. I wish there were a button in every app’s settings panel to dump old or expired data, but I suspect this is a lot harder than it seems: how can iOS reliably know what’s old and expired? Developers should be more aware of how much data can build up with typical usage, and take steps to minimize it wherever possible.


  1. I’d love to know what’s in Snapchat’s cache. ↩︎

Uber Employees Are Losing Faith in the Company, but Are Finding It Hard to Leave

Two related stories. First, Leslie Hook, the Financial Times:

“I have seen quite a few people who have been looking to leave Uber,” said one recruiter, who previously worked at the car-booking service. “One of the main reasons is lack of faith in senior leadership.”

He said the number of unsolicited résumés from Uber employees coming across his desk spiked last week, a time when two former employees published personal accounts alleging harassment and sexism at the company. He received more résumés from Uber in one week than he had the previous month.

For employees at Uber, quitting the company often means walking away from restricted stock units or stock options worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in Silicon Valley’s most highly valued private company. With Uber currently worth about $70bn, a typical middle manager position comes with RSUs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that vest over a four-year period.

Second, Julia Carrie Wong, the Guardian:

The Uber way – a take-no-prisoners, win-at-any-cost mentality – has helped the company soar to market domination and a $70bn valuation, but not without a cost. Uber’s corporate culture has been blamed for a series of public relations disasters that have tainted its brand with customers, investors and regulators.

Now the fallout from Uber’s terrible month is having an impact on another group: the company’s own former and current employees.

“People are looking to get out because they’re just sick of working for that company,” said a former Uber employee, who asked not to be identified. “A lot of them have told me that they’re having a hard time finding something new.”

At job interviews, the employee said, recruiters seem wary of Uber’s “hustle-oriented” workplace. “They have to defend themselves and say: ‘Oh, I’m not an asshole.’”

Current Uber employees have a lot of hard decisions to make. Are stock options alluring enough to retain employees wary of the company’s horrible culture and reputation? If they walk away, do they risk putting Uber on their resume, knowing its toxic connotations? Do they explain how successful they were at Uber, given that it likely means they’d have to be at least a little bit of an asshole to truly succeed there?

Google Is Lying to You About Onions and Blaming Tom Scocca

Tom Scocca, Gizmodo:

A little under five years ago, I got angry about a piece of fake information, and I decided to do something about it. I was reading a recipe in the New York Times, and the recipe told me, as many, many recipes had told me before, that it would take about 10 minutes of cooking to caramelize onions.

I knew from personal experience that this was a lie. Recipes always said it took 5 or 10 minutes to caramelize onions, and when you followed the recipes, you either got slightly cooked onions or you ended up 40 minutes behind schedule. So I caramelized some onions and recorded how long it really took — 28 minutes if you cooked them as hot as possible and constantly stirred them, 45 minutes if you were sane about it — and I published those results on Slate, along with a denunciation of the false five-to-10 minute standard.

[…]

Not only does Google, the world’s preeminent index of information, tell its users that caramelizing onions takes “about 5 minutes” — it pulls that information from an article whose entire point was to tell people exactly the opposite. A block of text from the Times that I had published as a quote, to illustrate how it was a lie, had been extracted by the algorithm as the authoritative truth on the subject.

Google has spent nearly two decades building a reputation as a broadly-trustworthy place where the chaos of the web becomes organized. Users who don’t know any better are trusting Google to vet the information they’re presented, and it’s frequently wrong. But, to those who are more alert, Google is throwing the trust they’ve built down the toilet with features like this one.

Mouse and Keyboard Bugs in MacOS Sierra

It was trivial for me to reproduce Stephen Braddy’s bug video, and it’s something I’ve noticed all the time on MacOS for the past couple of major versions of the operating system.

Sierra also introduced a couple of serious bugs with the way keyboards and trackpads are interpreted. I occasionally notice keypresses getting “stuck”, and my cursor sometimes lags when it is moved. Both of these bugs have been destructive for me: I have, more than once, deleted the wrong file, and have selected the wrong action in several applications. Luckily, undo still works.

I seem to have fewer problems with my keyboard and trackpad in the MacOS 10.12.4 beta, but I shouldn’t have to be running beta software or wait for four major versions to have reliable connections for my keyboard and pointing device. That’s fundamental to using a computer; any bugs with that should be addressed before shipping.

Alas, Braddy’s bug is not fixed in the most recent beta.

CIA and MI5 Allegedly Had the Capability to Use Samsung Smart TVs as Bugs

Alex Hern, the Guardian:

Other zero days described in the dataset, which totals around a gigabyte of publicly released files, include one which allows the agency to turn a popular brand of smart TV into a remote bug, spying on the user. Dubbed “Weeping Angel”, after a villain in BBC TV series Doctor Who, the malware was apparently developed in conjunction with British intelligence service MI5 and could be used to take control of TVs made by Korean firm Samsung and listen to conversations while appearing to be switched off.

The vulnerability with Samsung TVs was not publicly known until the release of the WikiLeaks documents. It is not known if the zero-day attack still works or if the hole has since been fixed by a software update, but the leak suggests that at least one version of the malware was shut down by a patch: the documents warn that “Firmware version 1118 [and higher] eliminated the current USB installation method.”

A reminder that this sort of thing will become far more prevalent as regular “dumb” home devices are replaced with “smart” versions.

Not too long ago, smart device manufacturers were complaining about the security methods required to certify products for Apple’s HomeKit platform. With every breach, that position is looking decreasingly tenable. The quality of a device’s security shouldn’t depend on whether it’s trying to guard against a targeted bugging operation from an intelligence agency or leaky code in a stuffed animal — everything becomes a risk when it contains a microchip.

Update: Robert Graham of Errata Security:

The docs are clear that they can update the software running on the TV using a USB drive. There’s no evidence of them doing so remotely over the Internet. If you aren’t afraid of the CIA breaking in an installing a listening device, then you should’t be afraid of the CIA installing listening software.

Poor Reporting on the CIA Documents Released by WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks today dumped a huge set of documents that make public some of the digital intrusion techniques and capabilities used by the CIA. As tends to be the case with these sorts of things, the reporting of these leaks is less nuanced than it ought to be.

For instance, take this bullet-point summary that appeared on the New York Times’ homepage today:

They indicate that the agency, by compromising the phones entirely, was able to access the contents of encrypted messaging apps like Signal and WhatsApp.

That certainly sounds like either the encryption or the apps were breached. Clicking through to the story seems like it reinforces that perception:

Among other disclosures that, if confirmed, will rock the tech world, the WikiLeaks release said that the C.I.A. and allied intelligence services had managed to bypass encryption on popular phone and messaging services such as Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram. According to the statement from WikiLeaks, government hackers can penetrate Android phones and collect “audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.”

Shane Harris and Paul Sonne of the Wall Street Journal (paywalled) wrote something similar:

WikiLeaks said the documents show the CIA’s ability to bypass the encryption of popular messenger applications, including WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram and Confide by hacking the smartphones they run on and collecting audio and message traffic before the applications encrypt the user’s texts.

In fact, pretty much every article I could find used some variation of the word “bypass” to describe the way in which the CIA can, apparently, record aspects of conversations in seemingly-secure apps. And that’s because that’s the exact same way that WikiLeaks describes it in their press release:

These techniques permit the CIA to bypass the encryption of WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Wiebo, Confide and Cloackman by hacking the “smart” phones that they run on and collecting audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.

It turns out that the CIA hasn’t breached the encryption technologies used by these messenger apps, nor have they breached the apps themselves. WikiLeaks’ use — and other publications’ re-purposing — of the unspecific word “bypass” is especially misleading because it neglects the full context of the prior paragraph within the press release:

A similar unit targets Google’s Android which is used to run the majority of the world’s smart phones (~85%) including Samsung, HTC and Sony. 1.15 billion Android powered phones were sold last year. “Year Zero” shows that as of 2016 the CIA had 24 “weaponized” Android “zero days” which it has developed itself and obtained from GCHQ, NSA and cyber arms contractors.

The flaw here isn’t with any of the encrypted chat apps, but with Android itself. However, because WikiLeaks has, so far, redacted information on the specific exploits possible for Android, it isn’t clear which zero-day — or, more likely, which combination of zero-days — is responsible for the flaw and what it achieves. Perhaps the CIA has an Android keylogger, in addition to their now-known capability to switch on the microphone. But it doesn’t really matter because a compromised device is a compromised device, period.

The CIA also apparently has a batch of exploits for use with iOS, though none are confirmed in these documents to work with iOS 10. The Android exploits are also entirely outdated, but software updates don’t roll out for Android phones as quickly or as evenly as they do for iOS devices.

The really big story most publications are missing here, though, is twofold. First, these documents are an acknowledgement that the CIA finds serious security holes in major software and buys up others’ exploits without telling the developers, which puts billions of devices at risk.

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

Over the years, nearly all of the focus on hacking mobile phones has been on the NSA and its capabilities, rather than the CIA. But it’s now clear that the CIA has its own operations, akin to the NSA’s hacking operations (kinda makes you wonder why we need that overlap). Except that the CIA’s hacking team seems almost entirely unconcerned with following the federal government’s rules on letting private companies know about vulnerabilities they’ve discovered.

The other important story is that this leak seems to show that encryption is working. Open Whisper Systems, creators of Signal:

Ubiquitous e2e encryption is pushing intelligence agencies from undetectable mass surveillance to expensive, high-risk, targeted attacks.

This is, strangely enough, somewhat good news. Devices are harder to into and communications are harder to record. While that makes the jobs of intelligence agencies harder, it also means that our private conversations can’t be swept up in bulk and stored at data centres to be archived and combed through for an indeterminate amount of time in the future.

Update: I clarified what I meant by the combination of exploits on Android.

Facebook Updates Messenger Bots With Menus

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

One of the problems with Facebook’s bots is that it’s often unclear how to get started. The directory of bots in Messenger wasn’t initially available and now only reveals itself when you start a search in the app. And it hasn’t always been obvious how to get a bot talking, once added, or how to navigate back and forth through a bot’s many sections.

The Messenger platform update today tackles this latter problem, by offering an alternative to the more limited – and sometimes confusing – systems that were previously available.

Instead of forcing users to talk with a bot, developers can choose to create a persistent menu that allows for multiple, nested items as a better way of displaying all the bots’ capabilities in a simple interface.

Bringing all the fun and excitement of a customer service telephone tree to a help system few people use. I doubt these bots are having anything like the effect that Facebook thought — or hoped — they might.

Kickstarter for Design Canada, a New Documentary

Lucy Bourton for It’s Nice That (via Coudal Partners):

Canadian designer Greg Durrell, filmmaker Jessica Edwards and Gary Hustwit director of design trilogy Helvetica, Objectified and Urbanized are collaborating on the first ever feature documentary on Canada’s vast design history, Design Canada. The team have launched a Kickstarter in order to raise funds for the film’s completion and release.

In a typical Canadian fashion, our design history is understated but remarkable in its own right. Back in July, an Ottawa-based designer tried to get permission from the CBC to reprint their brand standards guide, but I don’t think the campaign was successful. I hope this documentary does a little better. If you’d like to back it, you can do so at Kickstarter.

Pico Camera

Pico is a really fun new camera app from Louie Mantia and Chase McCoy. Mantia explains:

Before digital photography — to get the color you wanted — you selected film that had the color formula you liked, and you shot with that. No editing required.

[…]

Pico film isn’t a “filter” you attach to your camera lens, nor is it a “filter” you can apply after the fact. When you take a photo with Pico film, the result is the original. We’re just capturing color differently, just like analog film.

Sounds a little like bullshit, but I’ve been playing with Pico for several weeks now and it’s a very cool experience. By capturing a scene with a specific “film” instead of applying a filter afterwards, it forces you to consider the shot differently. It’s a very fun app that reminds me a little bit of Hipstamatic — remember Hipstamatic? — except faster and easier to use. Free to download with one film, and $3.99 (or your local equivalent) to unlock the full set.

Bad Answers From Google’s Featured Snippets

Adrianne Jeffries, the Outline:

Peter Shulman, an associate history professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, was lecturing on the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s when a student asked an odd question: Was President Warren Harding a member of the KKK?

Shulman was taken aback. He confessed that he was not aware of that allegation, but that Harding had been in favor of anti-lynching legislation, so it seemed unlikely. But then a second student pulled out his phone and announced that yes, Harding had been a Klan member, and so had four other presidents. It was right there on Google, clearly emphasized inside a box at the top of the page.

Jeffries found similar answers from crappy sources for questions about whether Barack Obama is planning to declare martial law, why firetrucks are red, and how to get a date, amongst other things. And, earlier this week, I found that it was using Shiva Ayyadurai’s own website to wrongly answer my query, “who invented email”.

It appears that these quick answers are also being used to power Google’s voice assistant, too.

JetSmarter Tried to Extort the Verge for Positive Coverage

T.C. Sottek, the Verge:

We’ve seen plenty of aggressive requests from companies that want positive coverage, but perhaps none as absurd as what we just got from JetSmarter — a startup that’s been called the “Uber for private jets.” In exchange for a demonstration of the service (a round-trip flight in the US), JetSmarter sent us an agreement that demands an uncritical puff piece.

The rub? JetSmarter wanted the credit card number of a Verge reporter, so that it could charge them $2,000 if they didn’t publish a positive story “within 5 business days.”

It’s almost as though one can’t create an on-demand luxury services startup without falling into massive ethical quandaries.

Uber Used Secret Greyball Tool to Deceive Authorities

As Yahoo is to stories of insecure user data, Uber is to stories of grotesque violations of privacy and regulation. But this is really something else. Mike Isaac has the scoop for the New York Times:

Uber has for years engaged in a worldwide program to deceive the authorities in markets where its low-cost ride-hailing service was being resisted by law enforcement or, in some instances, had been outright banned.

The program, involving a tool called Greyball, uses data collected from the Uber app and other techniques to identify and circumvent officials. Uber used these methods to evade the authorities in cities such as Boston, Paris and Las Vegas, and in countries like Australia, China, Italy and South Korea.

Greyball was part of a broader program called VTOS, short for “violation of terms of service,” which Uber created to root out people it thought were using or targeting its service improperly. The VTOS program, including the Greyball tool, began as early as 2014 and remains in use, predominantly outside the United States. Greyball was approved by Uber’s legal team.

I get the no-holds-barred “disruption” strategy engrained into so many tech startups, but the extent of their cavalier disregard for basic regulations is, frankly, unnecessary. And, it should be said, dangerous.

I’ll give you one example: when Uber wanted to begin testing its self-driving cars, it started in Pittsburgh with some onerous demands from the city. When they expanded to San Francisco later in the year, they couldn’t be bothered to apply for a permit. Then, late last year, a self-driving Uber ran a red light in San Francisco. The company claimed that a human driver was in control at the time and made an error, but it was revealed last week that the car was, indeed, in autonomous mode at the time. A permit likely wouldn’t have prevented the incident, but it would have allowed the city some authority to regulate the use of Uber’s autonomous vehicles.

Uber is now, at last, applying for a permit, but that’s only after they endangered the public and caused considerable damage to their reputation.

The Economist’s Internet Affordability Rankings

I have no idea what the Economist’s Intelligence Unit was drinking when they put together their ranking of internet service affordability worldwide, but I’m sure it was something strong. The biggest tell that this list is completely upside down? Canada, of all places, ranks number one, well above nations like Korea, Japan, and Singapore that are known for having ubiquitous low-cost high-speed internet connections.

Peter Nowak:

Without a definitive explanation from the horse’s mouth, it’s hard to know exactly why the EIU chose to differ so vastly from other findings in competitive environments.

One possibility is that the organization simply counted the total number of wired and wireless providers in Canada without accounting for their limited regional scope.

Rather than three national wireless providers, for example, Canada could thus be considered to have at least eight if Eastlink, Videotron, Freedom, MTS and Sasktel are counted. Taken at face value, that looks like a very competitive market. Of course, any Canadian knows better.

I pay $78 Canadian per month for my 60 Mbps connection. For comparison, Japan’s Softbank offers a 100 Mbps plan for the equivalent of about $43. A 50 Mbps DSL connection is available from Germany’s O2 provider for the equivalent of less than $50 per month.

This study is ludicrous. Internet access in Canada is many things, but “affordable” it is not.

Starbucks Stores Overwhelmed By Mobile Orders

Earlier today, after writing about the discomfort and guilt I feel when using push-button service apps, I remembered this article from the end of January. Lisa Baertlein, Reuters:

Starbucks’ coffee shops are suffering from a feared consequence of the mobile revolution: the digital world can dump an avalanche of orders in a short period of time, creating delays and lines that scare away customers.

Starbucks Corp is an early adopter of mobile order and payment technology that the U.S. restaurant industry hopes will boost sales while reducing the burden of rising labor costs.

But baristas at the company’s busiest cafes had difficulty keeping up with mobile orders in the latest quarter, creating bottlenecks at drink delivery stations and leading some walk-in customers to walk out.

Reuters being a business-oriented publication, this article mostly focuses on Starbucks’ lost potential customers. But can you imagine what it’s like to be a barista facing an onslaught of mobile orders?

If you’ve ever worked in a coffee shop, you’ll be familiar with the rhythm you can develop between the person at the till and the person making drinks. As a person making drinks, you’re counting on the banter at the cash register as a time buffer. Without that, employees are reduced to the frantic and robotic movements that are required to churn drinks out.

I don’t think anyone who places a mobile order from the Starbucks app is necessarily cognizant of this. They’re probably thrilled with the convenience, and rightly so. But the ease of a mobile order comes with a hidden human cost, and we ought to be more understanding of that.

After Five Years of Security Breaches, Yahoo Fires Its Top Lawyer, for Some Reason

Kara Swisher reports for Recode that Marissa Mayer is getting a pay cut for that really big security breach they had. No, the other one. No, the other other one:

But, said an independent committee, Mayer did not mean to run such a loose security ship, noting, it “did not conclude that there was an intentional suppression of relevant information.”

Still, Yahoo’s head lawyer, Ron Bell, got bounced for not doing his job, said the company, which noted that the “Committee found that the relevant legal team had sufficient information to warrant substantial further inquiry in 2014, and they did not sufficiently pursue it.”

So when is the lawyer the one who gets dinged for hacking screw-ups? Never. Let’s be clear, most people inside Yahoo think Mayer and the board should have shouldered the bulk of the blame for the breach.

Meanwhile, Yahoo announced today that that the most recently-disclosed security breach, this one involving forged cookies, affected 32 million accounts. Not too long ago, that would have been considered a large breach; now, it’s just par for the course for Yahoo.

Ming-Chi Kuo Says All 2017 iPhones Will Have Lightning Connectors With USB-C Fast Charging

Kuo’s investor note, as republished by Joe Rossignol of MacRumors:

We believe all three new iPhones launching in 2H17 will support fast charging by the adoption of Type-C Power Delivery technology (while still retaining the Lightning port). A key technical challenge lies with ensuring product safety and stable data transmission during a fast charge. In order to achieve that goal, we think Apple will adopt TI’s power management and Cypress’s Power Delivery chip solutions for the new iPhone models. We note the OLED version may have a faster charging speed thanks to a 2-cell L shaped battery pack design.

One of the great things about the Lightning connector is how it’s able to abstract all of this under-the-hood stuff and make it really consumer-friendly. I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets confused between the five different USB-C modes, and occasionally mixes up USB-C and USB 3.0. Lightning is just Lightning, even when it isn’t; the only thing consumers will notice about the new iPhones will be how much faster they charge.

Tech Service Guilt

Matt Levine, Bloomberg:

Elsewhere in Uber bashing, here is Timothy B. Lee on how Uber solves all its problems with money, which is not a long-term sustainable approach. As a consumer, I kind of hate this approach. Uber “attracts customers by offering them below-cost taxi rides,” Lee writes, but that’s not how it attracted me. It attracted me with convenience and certainty and the ability to get a car anywhere. I would pay more for that than I would for a regular taxi. Instead I have to pay less, and make up for it with intense feelings of shame and guilt. This seems like a general problem with the current generation of tech companies. They’ll give you an incredibly valuable service for cheap or free, but they’ll make you feel terrible about it. (Hi, Twitter!) I feel like there is a market niche for more expensive products without the baggage, but perhaps that doesn’t scale.

Whenever I order dinner using an app instead of over the phone, I get the same feeling. In the case of Uber and food delivery, I think that guilty feeling arises — for me, at least — from the knowledge that there is a real person on the receiving end of the order, but the app allows us to treat them like a push-button servant, of sorts. This sort of privilege was previously the domain of those in the rarefied atmosphere of upper floors and private jets; now, it’s available to those of us who, in many cases, would also be on the receiving end of similar commands.

Activity Tracking and Airplanes

Craig Hockenberry filed a bug report regarding the handling of activity streaks across the International Date Line:

Expected Results:

My move streak (379 days) should be intact. I should also see accurate results for my activity.

You’re measuring my body, not some arbitrary position and point in time.

Actual Results:

There is no way to meet your goals for the day you missed. And that breaks streaks.

I also experienced this when I went westward over the date line. And, in a similar vein, I typically register 1–3 hours towards my stand goal before my early morning bedtime. That doesn’t seem right to me — in my head, those hours should be applied to the prior day’s activity tracking.

Computer-centric units ought to be converted to human-perceived elements wherever possible. Siri already helps resolve this in some ways: in the wee hours of the morning, when you ask it to remind you of something “tomorrow”, it clarifies whether you meant later in that date or the next day.

But instant messaging software and email clients, for example, tend to resolve threads from one contact as separate conversations if they involve multiple phone numbers or email addresses. In a contact card, a phone number still requires country code to dial from outside that country, even when the contact’s address is present. In all cases, we’re just trying to contact people, not numbers or addresses.

And it’s a similar kind of thing in Hockenberry’s bug report: my devices know that I’m in a different time zone with a different date, and they also know the amount of time that has elapsed. There ought to be a way to resolve this for the units we perceive, not the units that are hard-coded.

Video Emerges of Travis Kalanick Arguing With His Uber Driver About Falling Fares

Eric Newcomer, Bloomberg:

There’s no question that it’s been a hard year for Kalanick and Uber — or really, a bad year compressed down into an awful three months. And it keeps getting worse. That pleasant conversation between Kalanick and his friends in the back of an Uber Black? It devolved into a heated argument over Uber’s fares between the CEO and his driver, Fawzi Kamel, who then turned over a dashboard recording of the conversation to Bloomberg. Kamel, 37, has been driving for Uber since 2011 and wants to draw attention to the plight of Uber drivers. The video shows off Kalanick’s pugnacious personality and short temper, which may cause some investors to question whether he has the disposition to lead a $69 billion company with a footprint that spans the globe.

Kalanick apologized in a company-wide email:

It’s clear this video is a reflection of me—and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.

I want to profoundly apologize to Fawzi, as well as the driver and rider community, and to the Uber team.

I know this is said a lot about incidents like these, but does anyone think that Kalanick would have remembered being a dick to his driver had video not been made public? I certainly don’t.

Building a company on a brilliant idea isn’t enough, and there’s no way that this is an isolated incident from Kalanick. Uber’s corporate culture has been rotten from the start, and it originates from the top. I don’t think this is news to anyone who has been following the company for a long time, but the amount of reports that have been published over the past few weeks makes for a profoundly upsetting track record.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at MWC

Nathan Ingraham, Engadget:

New FCC chairman Ajit Pai has made his views on net neutrality clear in the past: He’s against it. But today at Mobile World Congress, Pai gave a wide-ranging speech in which he made his most pointed comments against net neutrality since taking over as chairman. When discussing the rules put into place in early 2015, Pai said they were “a mistake” and praised “light touch” internet regulation — something that’s sure to be on the FCC’s agenda going forward.

[…]

But Pai continues to paint a picture of net neutrality rules that classify the internet as a utility as a backwards approach. “Rules developed to tame a 1930s monopoly were imported into the 21st century to regulate the internet,” Pai said while also calling the net neutrality ruling a “last-century” bit of regulation. It’s still early days for Pai’s leadership over the FCC, but it sounds like it won’t be long before we find out how he plans to roll back the protections put in place in 2015.

Notice the subtle rhetorical trick Pai played here. He frames the rules as “regulating the internet”, not “regulating internet service providers”. Regulating the internet itself is perceived as a blanket Very Bad Thing; regulating internet service providers — which is what the 2015 rules actually do — is not.

The other thing he argues — and this is common amongst those who disagree with regulating ISPs as common carriers — is that it’s somehow wrong to regulate the web based on rules written decades ago. This is a poor argument, as it relies exclusively on the age and not the substance of those regulations.

This is important for people to keep an eye on, and not just in the United States. Because most large web companies are American and because so much of the web’s infrastructure runs through the United States, the decisions that this FCC chairman makes will affect the rest of the world as well.

Amazon S3 Is Down

I don’t really do hot topical news here, but there are a couple of things I think we can all learn from today’s ongoing Amazon S3 downtime.

The first is that the cheap, scalable computing power offered by S3 has made it a de facto backbone of the web. We’re seeing that today with downtime affecting major services, like Slack and iCloud, as well as all kinds of websites and infrastructural components. This kind of consolidation needs to be broken up with competitive offerings from other providers, something that will be far more difficult to achieve should net neutrality principles be eliminated.

The second thing that we should learn from this is that it’s not a great idea to make a service’s status page dependent on the status of that service.

Third-Party iPhone Screen Repairs No Longer Fully Void Your Warranty

Joe Rossignol, MacRumors:

iPhones that have undergone any third-party screen repair now qualify for warranty coverage, as long as the issue being fixed does not relate to the display itself, according to an internal memo distributed by Apple today. MacRumors confirmed the memo’s authenticity with multiple sources.

Previously, an iPhone with a third-party display was not eligible for any authorized repairs under warranty.

Apple is currently fighting right-to-repair legislation in Nebraska, but they have just one retail store in the state and one Premium Service Provider. It may be limited to one state at the moment, but their decision would have repercussions across every tech company’s hardware line. This move should serve to minimize arguments that could be made by the state with regards to service availability.

FCC Chair Ajit Pai Has No Plans to Review AT&T–Time Warner Merger

Chris Morran of Consumerist:

In recent years, the FCC played a key part in blocking the mergers of AT&T and T-Mobile, and Comcast and Time Warner Cable, while also using its regulatory leverage to place pro-consumer conditions on the mergers it did approve — like getting Charter to agree to not use data caps for seven years. However, the FCC will apparently give AT&T its wish and not even chime in on the pending merger of AT&T and Time Warner.

This is according to recently elevated FCC Chair Ajit Pai, who told the Wall Street Journal today that he has no reason to review the merger if it’s not brought to the Commission’s attention.

Are you becoming increasingly sick of me regularly posting links to articles that explain how this FCC chairman is slowly, but quite deliberately, dismantling basic protections that help prevent an inevitable consolidation of power that threatens the principles and products of an open and free internet? Don’t send your complaints to me; I’m not who you should be writing to.

Google OnHub and WiFi Devices Temporarily Knocked Offline, Reset

From a February 23 help document:

Today we experienced an issue with our Google Accounts engine that may have affected your Google Wifi or OnHub device. This caused some devices to automatically reset to the initial state you bought them in. Unfortunately, these devices need to be set up again. We’d like to share our sincerest apologies for the inconvenience.

On the same day, a bunch of users also reported that they were being signed out of their Google accounts. Very strange and, in the wake of yet another “internet of things” vulnerability, concerning.

Amit Singhal, SVP at Uber, Leaving After Failing to Disclose Sexual Harassment Allegation at Google

Kara Swisher, Recode:

According to multiple sources and internal notes read to me, after discussing the claims of an alleged encounter between Singhal and a female employee first with former Google HR head Laszlo Bock and also Google CEO Sundar Pichai in late 2015, he denied those claims at the time. He also apparently stated a number of times that there were two sides to every story.

But, after the Christmas holidays, he then decided to resign himself after a 15-year career there.

Sources said that Google was prepared to fire Singhal over the allegations after looking into the incident, but that it did not have to do so after he resigned.

Sources said the female employee who filed the formal complaint against Singhal did not work for him directly, but worked closely with the search team. She also did not want to go public with the charges, which is apparently why Google decided to allow Singhal to leave quietly.

I find it repulsive that Singhal was allowed to simply quit. He was an SVP at Google, not a low-level employee, and ought to have been fired. Abusing that kind of responsibility and power ought to have consequences.

FCC to Halt Data Privacy Protection Rule for ISPs

From the euphemistically-titledStatement on Need for Comprehensive and Uniform Framework to Protect Americans’ Online Privacy” released by the FCC yesterday:

Chairman Pai believes that the best way to protect the online privacy of American consumers is through a comprehensive and uniform regulatory framework. All actors in the online space should be subject to the same rules, and the federal government shouldn’t favor one set of companies over another.

Funny how Ajit Pai believes in neutrality for companies, but not for the networks over which they preside.

Therefore, he has advocated returning to a technology-neutral privacy framework for the online world and harmonizing the FCC’s privacy rules for broadband providers with the FTC’s standards for others in the digital economy. Unfortunately, one of the previous administration’s privacy rules that is scheduled to take effect on March 2 is not consistent with the FTC’s privacy standards. Therefore, Chairman Pai is seeking to act on a request to stay this rule before it takes effect on March 2.

Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica clarifies:

The data security rule requires ISPs and phone companies to take ‘reasonable’ steps to protect customers’ information — such as Social Security numbers, financial and health information, and Web browsing data — from theft and data breaches.

[…]

Pai has said that ISPs shouldn’t face stricter rules than online providers like Google and Facebook, which are regulated separately by the Federal Trade Commission. Pai wants a “technology-neutral privacy framework for the online world” based on the FTC’s standards. According to today’s FCC statement, the data security rule “is not consistent with the FTC’s privacy standards.”

What that means is that instead of the FCC establishing a strong privacy standard for all companies, they’re likely to keep standards at whatever level lobbyists want.

There’s another rule set to go into effect December 4, which would require users to opt into schemes that allow ISPs to share data with other companies, like advertisers. I’d be willing to bet a pretty good chunk of money that this law will also be halted, at a later date. Like I wrote earlier this week, net neutrality and the principles of a better web will die a death of a thousand cuts at the hands of this FCC chairman.

Jim Lynch Wants to Be the Asshole of the Week Too

Jim Lynch:

As you can see from this list, the Mac has become a second rate product inside of Apple. The company simply cannot be bothered regularly updating the Mac, despite the fact that it is still a very important product for many of Apple’s customers.

It’s not as if Apple is some startup company, living on a shoestring budget. As I write this post the company has around $250 billion dollars and can easily afford to give the Mac more resources, time and energy. Heck, Apple has more money than a lot of countries on the planet!

But instead of updating the Mac, Tim Cook and the rest of his executives are spending their time worrying about transgender bathrooms. Is that really the proper thing to focus on for a business like Apple?

I have been as critical as anyone about the lacklustre year the Mac had in 2016. But the Mac is not competing against social advocacy for Apple’s attention. Lynch even said it himself: Apple is a big-ass company with an insane amount of resources. They can do lots of things. And ensuring equal rights for all is one way that Apple is able to put some of those resources to use.

What an asshole.

Aside: This post was published on the CIO “contributor network”. LinkedIn has one of those, as does Forbes. TechCrunch used to have one, but they shut it down recently because contributors were posting a lot of self-promotional garbage. I have yet to hear a great reason in favour of schemes like these.

Update: Jim Lynch previously argued that iOS 7 was “an estrogen-addled mess designed for 13 year old girls”, and was one of those people who giggled about the “iPad” name when it was announced. Give him credit: he’s a dedicated, long-time asshole. Via John Moltz.

Gene Munster Is the Asshole of the Week

Harriet Taylor, CNBC:

Allegations of widespread sexual harassment and bad behavior at Uber are “unfortunate and inexcusable,” but Uber is not going to change its company culture, nor should it, said Gene Munster, Loup Ventures managing partner.

Speaking from a hypothetical Uber investor’s perspective, “I would like to see the people that actually did this be held accountable, but I wouldn’t like to see the culture change, as crazy as that sounds,” he said. (Munster is not an investor in the company.)

[…]

“It can be changed, but it is dangerous. What got Uber to where they are today is their intense culture, and their vision is to have transportation as accessible as running water, and to continue that vision and to impact the culture is something that’s dangerous.”

Munster’s message is clear: a destructive corporate environment is fine, so long as it builds a ubiquitous business. What an asshole.

Women at Uber to Kalanick: ‘There Is a Systemic Problem’

Priya Anand, Buzzfeed:

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick joined a group of more than 100 female engineers on Thursday to discuss the explosive allegations of sexual harassment and sexism recently leveled against the ride-hailing company. During an hourlong meeting, the engineers grilled Kalanick on what they say is a systemic problem at the company and urged him to begin “listening to your own people,” according to an audio recording obtained by BuzzFeed News.

[…]

“I think that we should kind of address the elephant in the room … which is that everyone who’s in these rooms now … believes that there is a systemic problem here. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t,” one engineer told Kalanick. “I do not think that we need [Eric Holder’s] help in admitting to ourselves as a company that we have a systemic problem.”

“Fair enough. Fair enough. Fair enough,” Kalanick replied. “I understand.”

I want to give Uber’s management team the benefit of the doubt. I would love to be able to think that they can turn — so to speak — the car around. But this sort of toxic culture is the product of a great deal of time, and is almost certainly a top-down problem. It’s going to take years to undo such a damaged environment, if it’s even possible to do so.

Instagram Posts Can Now Contain Up to Ten Photos and Videos

Instagram:

When uploading to your feed, you’ll see a new icon to select multiple photos and videos. It’s easy to control exactly how your post will look. You can tap and hold to change the order, apply a filter to everything at once or edit one by one. These posts have a single caption and are square-only for now. On your profile grid, you’ll notice the first photo or video of your post has a little icon, which means there’s more to see.

In feed, you’ll see blue dots at the bottom of these posts to let you know you can swipe to see more. You can like and comment on them just like a regular post.

I like the idea of this, but its practical usability leaves a lot to be desired. If you swipe across a photo set from near the edge of the screen, it will switch to Instagram’s Story camera or its direct message view, depending on which way you swipe. And, if you swipe at the end of a photo set, you get moved into the direct message view as well, instead of bouncing back or looping around to the first photo.

FCC Votes to Reduce Transparency Requirements of Mid-Sized ISPs

Sam Gustin, Vice:

Broadband providers with fewer than 100,000 subscribers were already exempt from the net neutrality transparency requirements. But Thursday’s action boosts the exemption limit to companies with as many as 250,000 subscribers, a substantial increase that could affect as many as 9.7 million consumers, mostly in rural and underserved communities, according to Sen. Markey’s office.

By increasing the exemption limit, Pai has eliminated the transparency requirements for many firms that are actually local or regional subsidiaries of the nation’s largest broadband companies, which remain subject to the disclosure rules, according to FCC Commissioner Clyburn.

“Many of the nation’s largest broadband providers are actually holding companies, comprised of many smaller operating companies,” said Clyburn. “So what today’s Order does is exempt these companies’ affiliates that have under 250,000 connections by declining to aggregate the connection count at the holding company level.”

ISPs with up to 250,000 subscribers are no longer required to provide detailed information about speeds, reliability, or pricing.

Net neutrality won’t be eliminated in a single swoop. It will be dismantled piece-by-piece over the next four years, beginning earlier this month when Chairman Ajit Pai stopped investigating self-benefitting zero rating schemes. Today’s action is the next step towards bleeding out net neutrality regulations and requirements. It’s outrageous.

Silicon Valley Firms Condemn Rescinding of Federal Transgender Protections

I appreciate that some of the biggest companies in the United States are speaking out against the more vile actions of this administration. Yet, while I understand that it’s risky for a major publicly-traded company to be blunt, I wish these statements were a little less safe. Major corporations should start objecting to decisions like these by describing what they are: cruel and discriminatory.

Inside the Uber Cesspool

The New York Times’ Mike Isaac, with some crack reporting on the ongoing clusterfuck that is Uber’s workplace:

Workers like Ms. Fowler who went to human resources with their problems said they were often left stranded. She and a half-dozen others said human resources often made excuses for top performers because of their ability to improve the health of the business. Occasionally, problematic managers who were the subject of numerous complaints were shuffled around different regions; firings were less common.

One group appeared immune to internal scrutiny, the current and former employees said. Members of the group, called the A-Team and composed of executives who were personally close to Mr. Kalanick, were shielded from much accountability over their actions.

Nobody’s asking for the company to be perfect. They don’t even have to be a role model in the industry, or particularly unique in the way they treat victimized employees. But I think everyone expects a company to have a reasonable ethical baseline. Uber can’t manage even that at a bare minimum.

Apple’s New Campus Will Officially Be Called ‘Apple Park’

Apple PR:

Apple today announced that Apple Park, the company’s new 175-acre campus, will be ready for employees to begin occupying in April. The process of moving more than 12,000 people will take over six months, and construction of the buildings and parklands is scheduled to continue through the summer.

The first thing I thought of upon reading this was the name’s resemblance to Xerox PARC, the legendary research and development firm. I don’t think this was intentional, but I think it’s appropriately homonymous considering Apple’s R&D ambitions.

Steve would have turned 62 this Friday, February 24. To honor his memory and his enduring influence on Apple and the world, the theater at Apple Park will be named the Steve Jobs Theater.

That’s appropriate. Everyone, it seems — from big companies to college students — models their presentations on the “Stevenote” slideshow style.

The way to think of Apple Park is not as a real estate project or a corporate campus, but as an Apple product. You can see that by the way they’re treating it in press releases. It is the most expensive and most exclusive Apple product ever created. Yet, I’m certain that they’re not going to change their official address. Apple Park may be the new hotness, but “1 Infinite Loop” is as much Apple’s signature as “Designed by Apple in California”. Unless they rename the street that Park sits on, Infinite Loop will remain Apple’s metonym.

How to Lock Down a Compromised Skype Account

I rarely use Skype, so I was surprised when I was notified upon signing in yesterday that I needed to change my password. I didn’t really think much of it — I was about to jump into a meeting — but I was told today that one of my contacts, who I haven’t contacted over Skype in about a month, received a pretty sketchy link from me recently.

So I did a little digging and found this rather worrying November 2016 post from Tom Warren of the Verge:

This year’s attack appears to be growing in size, and Skype users might think they’re protected by Microsoft’s two-factor security, when in reality they’re probably not. Microsoft offers the ability to link a Skype and Microsoft Account together to make sign-in and security easier. If you already enabled this months ago, it turns out that Microsoft has kept your original Skype account password separate so that it can still be used to access the service with a Skype username. If that password isn’t secure or you used it elsewhere then hackers can use it to gain access to Skype, bypassing any two-factor authentication provided by Microsoft.

I spoke to a Microsoft employee, on condition of anonymity, who had a Skype account breached recently. The Microsoft employee had used two-factor authentication, but hackers were able to log in using an old Skype username and password combination. I even tested this on my own personal accounts, and I was able to log into my Skype account with an old password despite linking it to my Microsoft Account months ago. I thought I was protected by Microsoft’s two-factor authentication, but I wasn’t.

Many of us probably created our Skype accounts many years ago, well before they were acquired by Microsoft, at a time when we might have paid less attention to creating secure passwords. And because Skype is almost always accessed as an app instead of a website, most of us probably saved whatever crappy password we set at the time and forgot all about it.

It turns out that’s we haven’t been following the greatest security protocol in the world. But instead of advising users proactively, Microsoft has opted to notify users after signing in and has allowed users two ways of logging in. I think that’s a terrible policy.

You may wish to check your long-dormant Skype account to see if it was compromised, and either disable it or follow Warren’s instructions to secure it.

Chicago’s Ethics Board Fines Uber’s Former Strategist $90,000

Subrat Patnaik, Reuters:

Chicago’s ethics board voted unanimously to fine Uber Technologies Inc’s former strategist, David Plouffe, $90,000 for illegally lobbying in the city.

The ethics board said that Plouffe, who helped Uber combat onerous regulations and opposition from the taxi industry, violated the Governmental Ethics Ordinance by lobbying city officials and failing to register as a lobbyist.

I may have put together a litany of press clippings that paint a picture of Uber as a company that has repeatedly transgressed on users’ privacy and failed women as both employees and customers, but I forgot a few things: racial discrimination, their pathological objection to regulation, failure to obtain insurance, exaggerating drivers’ earnings, burdensome handout requests, hidden fees, legal problems, and their questionable business model that allows them to lose three billion dollars in one year to undercut taxi drivers in cities worldwide.

I mean, it kind of sounds bad when you put it all together like that, doesn’t it? Makes you question why anyone would continue to support a company with this kind of track record when they’re not even ten years old yet.

Mark’s Manifesto

Ben Thompson, in a well-considered response to Mark Zuckerberg’s recent 5,800-word essay:

My deep-rooted suspicion of Zuckerberg’s manifesto has nothing to do with Facebook or Zuckerberg; I suspect that we agree on more political goals than not. Rather, my discomfort arises from my strong belief that centralized power is both inefficient and dangerous: no one person, or company, can figure out optimal solutions for everyone on their own, and history is riddled with examples of central planners ostensibly acting with the best of intentions — at least in their own minds — resulting in the most horrific of consequences; those consequences sometimes take the form of overt costs, both economic and humanitarian, and sometimes those costs are foregone opportunities and innovations. Usually it’s both.

Thompson’s proposed remedy is to limit Facebook’s monopoly power by restricting their ability to acquire new subsidiaries and networks, allow for portability of friends between networks, and reconsider the amount of data they collect from users.

But all of this is, I think, extremely unlikely to reduce Facebook’s ability to exploit and expand their monopoly. Their biggest lock-in is that everyone else is already there. Even if everyone could conceivably migrate their entire Facebook history to a similar network, I doubt that they would without some significant impetus to do so. Every social network with an entrenched user base has that kind of stickiness. Think of all of the people who threaten to quit Twitter after every transgression — it’s relatively easy for users to move to an alternative platform, but it’s difficult for the community to move en masse without a reason. Put more simply: users don’t abandon social networks until the social networks abandon them.

A History of Uber Since January 2014, in Excerpts

Carmel DeAmicis, reporting for Pando in January 2014:

Last month, Pando reported that an Uber driver in San Francisco had been accused of verbally and physically assaulting a passenger, James Alva. According to Alva, the driver called him a “dirty Mexican faggot” and then struck him several times when Alva tried to take a photo of him and his license plate to send to Uber.

The company confirmed that the alleged attacker was an Uber driver. However, since the police did not arrest the driver when called to the scene, the company chose not to investigate the incident further. At the time, Uber said it would temporarily suspend the driver, but not permanently ban him from driving for the company. [Updated: Since this post was published, Uber emailed to say the company deactivated this driver’s account from the system in December. Uber has not yet commented as to what prompted this change of heart.]

Throughout, Uber insisted that the driver had passed their standard background checks.

However, Pando has since learned that the driver — 28-year-old San Francisco resident Daveea Whitmire — has a criminal record, including felony and misdemeanor charges, and at least one felony conviction involving prison time. How, or why, Uber missed — or ignored — this criminal history is unclear.

In February 2014, GQ writer Mickey Rapkin spent a week as an Uber driver and interviewed CEO Travis Kalanick:

Not to make assumptions, but Kalanick probably wasn’t the first kid in his class to lose his virginity. But the way he talks now—which is large—he’s surely making up for lost time. When I tease him about his skyrocketing desirability, he deflects with a wisecrack about women on demand: Yeah, we call that Boob-er.

Gross.

Alicia Lu, writing for Bustle in October 2014:

Everyone’s favorite car service just had a major lapse in judgment. It seems that someone was thinking with their stick shift: Uber Lyon’s promotion with the Avions de Chasse app let customers be chauffeured around by amateur models instead of its regular drivers. The premise of it alone sounds pretty gross, but upon a closer look at the app’s website and the whole operation looks like the brainchild of a horny teenage boy and his older web developer friend. Coming to their senses, Uber has taken down any trace of the app and the promotion from its websites.

Matthew Williams reporting for Boing Boing in November 2014:

A few years ago, Uber posted a blog entry titled “Rides of Glory.” Uber searched its data, looking for anyone who took an Uber between 10pm and 4am on a Friday or Saturday night. Uber then searched that data for how many of the same people took another ride about four to six hours later — either from, at, or near the previous nights’ drop-off point.

“The greater the male/female ratio, the more likely that neighborhood had a Ride of Glory.”

What does this mean? Uber can track one-night stands.

Uber pulled their March 2012 post shortly after various news outlets and blogs started reporting on it in 2014.

Ben Smith of Buzzfeed in November 2014:

A senior executive at Uber suggested that the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media — and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company.

The executive, Emil Michael, made the comments in a conversation he later said he believed was off the record. In a statement through Uber Monday evening, he said he regretted them and that they didn’t reflect his or the company’s views.

Sarah Lacy of Pando was the female journalist in question:

And lest you think this was just a rogue actor and not part of the company’s game plan, let me remind you Kalanick telegraphed exactly this sort of thing when he sat on stage at the Code Conference last spring and said he was hiring political operatives whose job would be to “throw mud.” I naively thought he just meant Taxi companies. Let me also remind you: This is a company you trust with your personal safety every single time you use it. Let me also remind you: The executive in question has not been fired.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Emil Michael still works at Uber.

Johana Bhuiyan and Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed in November 2014:

Early this November, one of the reporters of this story, Johana Bhuiyan, arrived to Uber’s New York headquarters in Long Island City for an interview with Josh Mohrer, the general manager of Uber New York. Stepping out of her vehicle — an Uber car — she found Mohrer waiting for her. “There you are,” he said, holding his iPhone and gesturing at it. “I was tracking you.”

Mohrer never asked for permission to track her.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Mohrer still works at Uber.

Johana Bhuiyan in a January 2016 followup article:

As part of the settlement, Uber has agreed to pay a penalty of $20,000 to the attorney general’s office for its failure to report unauthorized third-party access to drivers’ personal information in a timely fashion. The ride-hail company has also agreed to adopt more rigorous privacy and security practices. These practices include password-protecting and encrypting the geo-location data of Uber riders and drivers, limiting access to that information to designated employees with “legitimate business purposes”, and incorporating multi-factor authentication and other “protective technologies” to secure personal information.

Shortly before this settlement was announced, the New York Times reported that Uber was valued at $62.5 billion. At that point, $20,000 becomes just another business expense.

Charlie Warzel and Johana Bhuiyan, in a March 2016 Buzzfeed report:

According to data provided by Uber to BuzzFeed News, the company received five claims of rape and “fewer than” 170 claims of sexual assault directly related to an Uber ride as inbound tickets to its customer service database between December 2012 and August 2015.

Uber provided these numbers as a rebuttal to screenshots obtained by BuzzFeed News. The images that were provided by a former Uber customer service representative (CSR) to BuzzFeed News, and subsequently confirmed by multiple other parties, show search queries conducted on Uber’s Zendesk customer support platform from December 2012 through August 2015. Several individual tickets shown in the screenshots have also been confirmed.

[…]

In one screenshot, a search query for “sexual assault” returns 6,160 Uber customer support tickets. A search for “rape” returns 5,827 individual tickets. Other variations of the terms yield similarly high returns: A search for “assaulted” shows 3,524 tickets, while “sexually assaulted” returns 382 results.

Gabriel Samuels, in a May 2016 report for the Independent:

Uber drivers are accused of sexually assaulting or raping customers almost three times a month, according to new figures which have outraged rape campaigners.

Freedom of Information data obtained by The Sun newspaper revealed 32 assault claims were made against employees of the taxi-hailing app in London over the past twelve months, equal to one every eleven days.

The figure represents more than a fifth of all claims against taxi and car-hire drivers filed to 14 UK police forces last year, which totalled at 154 allegations including attacks in minicabs and chauffeur vehicles.

Ellie Kaufman, in a June 2016 article for Quartz:

What Uber giveth, Uber can taketh away. On May 9, Uber and Lyft stopped operating in Austin, Texas, after spending over $10 million to lobby Austin’s citizens against a city ordinance that would require ride-sharing drivers to get background checks. Voters upheld the ordinance, and the two companies pulled out of the city two days later.

[…]

In 2015 alone, 27 incidents of sexual assault or rape in Austin were reported where a driver of a ride-sharing service assaulted a passenger, according to data from the Austin Police Department. Meanwhile, only 9.2% of victims report sexual assault to the police in Texas, according to the 2015 Texas Statewide Sexual Assault Prevalence Study, and 68% of sexual assaults go unreported nationally. This means that while 27 incidents of sexual violence were reported, many more could have occurred undetected.

Mitchel Broussard, in a December 2016 MacRumors article:

A recent update to ride-hailing app Uber is generating a negative reaction online, with customers concerned over the company’s decision to track their location “from the time of trip request through five minutes after the trip ends,” no matter if the app is open or not. The only option now available for users to negate the background tracking of their location is to go into iOS Settings > Privacy > Location Services and opt-in to “Never” allow Uber location access through the iPhone.

Will Evans, in a December 2016 article for Reveal:

After news broke two years ago that executives were using the company’s “God View” feature to track customers in real time without their permission, Uber insisted it had strict policies that prohibited employees from accessing users’ trip information with limited exceptions.

But five former Uber security professionals told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that the company continued to allow broad access even after those assurances.

Susan J. Fowler, yesterday:

As most of you know, I left Uber in December and joined Stripe in January. I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the past couple of months about why I left and what my time at Uber was like. It’s a strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story that deserves to be told while it is still fresh in my mind, so here we go.

[…]

After the first couple of weeks of training, I chose to join the team that worked on my area of expertise, and this is where things started getting weird. On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.

[…]

Over the next few months, I began to meet more women engineers in the company. As I got to know them, and heard their stories, I was surprised that some of them had stories similar to my own. Some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager I had reported, and had reported inappropriate interactions with him long before I had even joined the company. It became obvious that both HR and management had been lying about this being “his first offense”, and it certainly wasn’t his last. Within a few months, he was reported once again for inappropriate behavior, and those who reported him were told it was still his “first offense”. The situation was escalated as far up the chain as it could be escalated, and still nothing was done.

There is a pattern here; expect more current and ex-employees to report similar incidents.

As I was assembling these excerpts, Mike Isaac of the New York Times got ahold of a company-wide email sent by Kalanick:

It’s been a tough 24 hours. I know the company is hurting, and understand everyone has been waiting for more information on where things stand and what actions we are going to take.

Memo to Travis: nobody cares about the company itself. It’s not hurting; people have been hurt. What matters is that this stuff keeps happening, with apparently little consequence for those responsible.

Kalanick promises in the email to investigate everything Fowler disclosed and Uber’s overall attitude towards diversity in the workplace. He also discloses, for the first time, that 15% of their tech staff is female. This compares to 15% at Twitter (not 10%, as Kalanick claims), 17% at Facebook, 19% at Google (not 18%, as Kalanick claims), and 23% at Apple.

There is a deep, festering, and toxic workplace environment at Uber. It is the manifestation of its bro-ey CEO that doesn’t think that regulations should apply to his company. Creating a workplace that encourages diversity in both gender and ethnicity doesn’t seem to be very high on Kalanick’s priorities.

This is not okay. This has never been okay. Yet the only incident callous enough, in the public’s eyes, to trigger a mass boycott of Uber was when they dropped surge pricing at JFK airport after taxi drivers there went on strike following Donald Trump’s immigrant-restricting executive order.

I absolutely agree with showing support for those put at risk by sweeping policies from big, institutional powers. In this case, Uber’s drivers ought to have joined New York’s taxi drivers in protest, so users’ boycotting of the service is a straightforward way to protest Uber. But the company’s record on women’s rights, in particular, has been appalling — I didn’t even touch on rampant racism. From rape allegations made against drivers to tracking and “throwing mud” against female journalists, and an internal culture that tolerates sexism to an egregious degree, it’s clear that we must respond in force in this case, too.

So grab your phone, and delete Uber.

Update: Added the November 2014 “one night stand” post and the June 2016 report from Austin, thanks to Ryan Jones.

Techdirt Files a Motion to Dismiss Shiva Ayyadurai’s Lawsuit

Mike Masnick:

As we mentioned last month, we are currently being sued for $15 million by Shiva Ayyadurai, represented by Charles Harder, the lawyer who helped bring down Gawker. We have written, at great length, about Ayyadurai’s claims and our opinion — backed up by detailed and thorough evidence — that email existed long before Ayyadurai created any software. Once again, we believe the legal claims in the lawsuit are meritless and we intend to fight them and win. Earlier today, we filed a motion to dismiss (along with our memorandum in support) and a special motion to strike under California’s anti-SLAPP law (along with a memorandum in support). You can see all of those below. I encourage you read through them.

The four documents prepared by Techdirt’s law firm are a well-written legalese-free “fuck you” addressed to Ayyadurai, and are well worth reading. The motion to dismiss and its corresponding supporting document take apart Ayyadurai’s case piece-by-piece in spectacularly detailed fashion. Any reasonable jury would see right through his claims.

Techdirt has also launched a survival fund. If you can, I’m sure they would appreciate your donation to help stomp out lawsuits designed to silence journalists and critics of wealthy individuals.

Acquisitions in Tech Have a Checkered History

Jan Dawson, in what amounts to a response to that dreadful Bloomberg article about Apple’s acquisition strategy:

The reality is M&A is a risky business, with one of the biggest challenges being cultural fit. That’s particularly challenging at Apple because it sees its culture as both unique and uniquely important. That means smaller deals for technology and tight-knit teams of people are a better fit than massive established businesses with large workforces. For other companies with more generic engineering and software cultures, such acquisitions may be easier.

But it’s also fair to say the biggest failures include several attempts to use big acquisitions as levers for massive strategic shifts, while the most successful acquisitions have often been logical extensions of existing businesses. Skype, Nokia, and aQuantive at Microsoft all fell into the former category, for example, whereas Zappos at Amazon, YouTube and DoubleClick at Google, and Instagram at Facebook were all fairly adjacent businesses. Big strategic shifts have rarely been enabled by taking on entirely new and different businesses – those are often best established through organic change or technology acquisitions which enable broader changes.

Apple has made plenty of acquisitions, most of which have been at relatively low prices for what they returned: custom silicon, Siri, NeXT, Steve friggen Jobs, and so on. They just don’t do acquisitions like the investment bankers in that Bloomberg article think that they should.

‘Quasistatic Cavity Resonance for Ubiquitous Wireless Power Transfer’

Matthew Chabalko, Mohsen Shahmohammadi, and Alanson Sample of Disney Research:

Wireless power delivery has the potential to seamlessly power our electrical devices as easily as data is transmitted through the air. However, existing solutions are limited to near contact distances and do not provide the geometric freedom to enable automatic and un-aided charging. We introduce quasistatic cavity resonance (QSCR), which can enable purpose-built structures, such as cabinets, rooms, and warehouses, to generate quasistatic magnetic fields that safely deliver kilowatts of power to mobile receivers contained nearly anywhere within.

This is still pretty experimental — the paper shows the setup in Fig. 3, and it’s transmitting power via a giant copper pole and conductive walls. Still, this appears to be one hell of a leap over previous wireless power solutions in terms of both its compactness and flexibility. One photo in the paper shows an iPhone mounted in a slim case with a receiver.

Just imagine a future where transmitters like these are as ubiquitous as WiFi, and the possibilities that open up when batteries can be that much smaller or, perhaps, unnecessary, in some applications.

Vice: Apple to Fight Right to Repair Legislation in Nebraska

Jason Koebler, Vice:

The legislation would require Apple and other electronics manufacturers to sell repair parts to consumers and independent repair shops, and would require manufacturers to make diagnostic and service manuals available to the public.

[…]

According to the source, an Apple representative, staffer, or lobbyist will testify against the bill at a hearing in Lincoln on March 9. AT&T will also argue against the bill, the source said. The source told me that at least one of the companies plans to say that consumers who repair their own phones could cause lithium batteries to catch fire. Motherboard is protecting the identity of the source because they are not authorized to speak to the press.

[…]

The idea that it’s “unsafe” to repair your own devices is one that manufacturers have been promoting for years. Last year, industry lobbyists told lawmakers in Minnesota that broken glass could cut the fingers of consumers who try to repair their screens, according to Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of Repair.org. Byrne said she will also testify at the Nebraska hearing and “plans to bring band aids.”

I get that Apple, IBM, John Deere, and others would all prefer that this legislation doesn’t pass because it will impact their revenue. As much as I like the idea of this bill, I expect most tech companies to lobby against it. But their arguments are, so far, terrible. Lithium ion batteries and broken glass are dangerous, sure, but give people some credit — it’s not that hard to make a battery or screen swap. If I were a legislator, I wouldn’t be convinced by their arguments.

Update: Koebler in a newer article:

But the prospect of a Cupertino-based megacorporation losing business to local repair shops isn’t a very sympathetic argument at the Nebraska statehouse. And so Apple has tried a slew of other tactics, according to state Sen. Lydia Brasch, who was recently visited by Steve Kester, an Apple state government affairs specialist.

“Apple said we would be the only state that would pass this, and that we would become the mecca for bad actors,” Brasch, who is sponsoring the bill, told me in a phone call. “They said that doing this would make it very easy for hackers to relocate to Nebraska.”

These arguments are still unconvincing, and getting worse.

I don’t get why Apple apparently isn’t making an argument for innovation. For example, they could point to the Touch ID sensor’s pairing system and explain that, while it sacrifices repairability of the home button, it makes the system more secure. I’m not sure if a Nebraskan lawmaker would be convinced by this, but it’s far less bullshitty than the arguments Koebler has been reporting.

Canada and E.U. Set to Ratify CETA

Janyce McGregor, CBC News:

The European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday approved the Canada-EU trade agreement after a noisy and sometimes emotional debate.

Roughly 58 per cent of the members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted to ratify the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), setting the stage for provisional application of nearly 90 per cent of the agreement later this spring.

“This is a deal for the people,” International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne said after the vote, emphasizing how the agreement will offer consumers more choice and lower costs.

The good news is that CETA will generally reduce the price of European imports in Canada, including for cars, wine, and cheese. You can imagine how happy I am.

The bad news is that the intellectual property provisions in the agreement are, generally, pretty poor. The agreement makes it illegal to create, distribute, or market any product or device that could work around DRM; it also makes it illegal for consumers to modify or strip DRM, or distribute any information on how to break DRM. That’s unpleasant.

WWDC 2017 Is June 5–9

The biggest news this year — well, so far, at least — is that it’s heading back to the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, site of the first-ever WWDC.

John Gruber got to speak to Phil Schiller yesterday about this announcement, and they’re not making the move back to San Jose for the reason I thought they might:

I asked whether the move to San Jose changed the number of people who’d be able to attend. Schiller said it did not — attendance will be about the same.

Moscone West, the site of every WWDC’s labs and sessions since 2003, has a combined floor space of about 300,000 square feet. The McEnery has about 25% more space. But I bet attendance isn’t limited by floor space as much as it is by keeping the employee-to-attendee ratio low.

A cursory glance at a couple of travel sites indicates that it’s going to be a little bit less expensive to stay in San Jose than it is in San Francisco. I’m seeing a bunch of hotels at $150–250 per night which, while not cheap, adds up to some substantial savings over the week. Rooms are going really fast, so if you’re thinking about going for the atmosphere, start looking right away.

Update: It’s a fifteen minute drive drive from the convention centre to Apple Campus 2, so I’m sure they’ll have some events there as well. Perhaps the Bash? It’s only twelve kilometres away; enterprising attendees could walk that route if they felt like it.

Stuart McLean Dies Aged 68

Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Jessica Wong, CBC News:

Stuart McLean, the host of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Café and an award-winning humorist, has died at age 68 after a battle with melanoma.

McLean’s trademark blend of storytelling — part nostalgia, part pithy observations about everyday life — and folksy, familiar delivery made him a hit with audiences for more than 20 years. But he always maintained that success came as a surprise to him.

McLean’s voice on the Vinyl Café is etched into the minds of many Canadians. I think it’s worth etching into yours as well.

The Fake Market Tactic

Anil Dash:

[…] by carefully describing drivers in their system as “entrepreneurs” and appropriating the language of true markets, Uber has been welcomed by communities and policymakers as if they were creating a new marketplace. That has serious implications for policy, regulation and even civil rights. For example, we can sincerely laud Uber for making it easier for African American passengers to reliably hail a car when they need a ride, but if persistent patterns of bias from drivers arise again in the Uber era, we’ll have a harder time regulating those abuses because Uber doesn’t usually follow the same policies as licensed taxis.

These pseudo-market patterns also mask patterns of subsidy, like the fact that Uber’s current operations are subsidized by investors to the tune of $2 billion per year. That’s a cost that will be immediately passed along to consumers as soon as Uber succeeds in displacing conventional taxis.

A thought-provoking piece on our inability to reconcile the speed of the evolution of marketplaces with the regulations required to control monopolization and consumer-unfriendly behaviours.

Yahoo Notifies Users of Security Breach, in News That Is Not a Repeat From 2012, 2013, and 2014

Shortly after Verizon announced in July their purchase of Yahoo for slightly less than Yahoo paid for Broadcast.com, a series of alarming news articles came out notifying users of one data breach after another. In 2012, 200 million accounts were compromised; in 2013, a billion; and, in 2014, 500 million accounts were breached. In every case, Verizon said that they were unaware of these incidents until just before Yahoo disclosed them to the press and to users.

With three very high-profile incidents like these, the Verizon acquisition felt a little like it might collapse. However, earlier today, Bloomberg reported that the deal was finally ready to go through — for $250 million less than initially announced:

Verizon Communications Inc. is close to a renegotiated deal for Yahoo! Inc.’s internet properties that would reduce the price of the $4.8 billion agreement by about $250 million after the revelation of security breaches at the web company, according to people familiar with the matter.

In addition to the discount, Verizon and the entity that remains of Yahoo after the deal, to be renamed Altaba Inc., are expected to share any ongoing legal responsibilities related to the breaches, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private information. An announcement of the new agreement could come in a matter of days or weeks, said the people. The revised agreement isn’t final and could still change, they said.

Then, just a few hours after Bloomberg broke this news, the Associated Press reported yet another lapse in security:

Yahoo is warning users of potentially malicious activity on their accounts between 2015 and 2016, the latest development in the internet company’s investigation of a mega-breach that exposed 1 billion users’ data several years ago.

Yahoo confirmed Wednesday that it was notifying users that their accounts had potentially been compromised but declined to say how many people were affected.

There has now been a problem with Yahoo’s security every single year for the past five years. These incidents affect nearly two billion accounts cumulatively, thereby undermining the security of basically all of their users across the web.

First Look at Planet of the Apps

Husain Sumra, MacRumors:

The format of the show is similar to that of fellow talent-based reality shows The Voice and Shark Tank. Aspiring app developers descend down an escalator while pitching four judges on their idea. By the time they get to the bottom, the judges must swipe left or right to demonstrate whether they’re interested. If multiple judges swipe right on a contestant, the contestant gets to choose who they want to pair with. Once paired, the developer goes through an incubator period, getting advise from developers at big companies like Uber, until it’s ready enough to pitch to Lightspeed Venture Partners for funding.

I watched the trailer; it doesn’t look good. I like the “escalator pitch” idea, and I think Gary Vaynerchuk and Jessica Alba will be reasonably competent. But I have reservations about Gwyneth Paltrow and Will.I.Am’s involvement. And then there’s the actual premise of the show:

[Eddy Cue] says Apple is just starting out with original content, but that it wants to do more. When asked whether it could see itself becoming Netflix, Cue said Apple wants to see where it can go with its own strategy. Cue later emphasized that Apple doesn’t just want to buy shows, denying that Apple was ever interested in purchasing The Grand Tour. Instead, Apple only wants to make shows that are unique and “create culture.”

I’ve seen more than a few people write this off as a dramatized version of app development — compiling code and funding rounds, as seen through a reality TV filter. I think that’s overly kind. The premise is derivative, and the clips — so far — seem mediocre and dull. What has been shown so far does a disservice to the vast majority of developers, too.

Meanwhile, for all its faults, the Grand Tour had a genuinely good first season by its end. It may have been a shameless knockoff of the Top Gear format, but it was presented by the same cast that made Top Gear a worldwide phenomenon, and it was a genuine joy to watch. If anything, it managed to make the most recent iteration of Top Gear on the BBC look like the knock-off, not the Grand Tour.

Kirk McElhearn (via Michael Tsai):

A reality show isn’t creating culture, it’s copying a format that is tired. Reality TV is the Android phone of TV shows, and Apple could surely do better.

No matter whether I’m the right audience for this, shouldn’t Apple be shooting for more than a knockoff of X Factor, but with the singing bits replaced with clips of developers asking wealthy VCs for money?

I also think the distribution of this TV show is confused. For some reason, it will be made available through Apple Music within the Music app, despite Apple having an app literally called “TV”.

Sure, the show hasn’t come out yet. I’ll give it a shot — I’m an Apple Music subscriber, so why not? But I’m pessimistic about its chances of clearing my already-low expectations for it.

Facebook to Begin Autoplaying Video With Sound in News Feed

Buried amongst Facebook’s announcements at Code Conference comes this nugget of terrible, per Kurt Wagner:

Autoplay videos in News Feed will now play with the sound on, assuming your phone is not on silent. You can disable this feature in settings.

Anyone else getting the feeling that management at Facebook has nothing but contempt for their users?

Potential National Security Lapses by Flashlight

Philip Bump, Washington Post:

Notice, though, that the photos appear to corroborate an important detail from the CNN report. “The patio was lit only with candles and moonlight, so aides used the camera lights on their phones to help the stone-faced Trump and Abe read through the documents,” Liptak writes. In DeAgazio’s first photo, you can see a phone flashlight being used in that way.

Why is this important? Mobile phones have flashlights, yes — and cameras, microphones and Internet connectivity. When Edward Snowden was meeting with reporters in Hong Kong at the moment he was leaking the material he’d stolen from the NSA, he famously asked that they place their phones in the refrigerator — blocking any radio signals in the event that the visitors’ phones had been hacked. This was considered the most secure way of ensuring that the phones couldn’t be used as wiretaps, even more secure than removing the battery. Phones — especially phones with their flashes turned on for improved visibility — are portable television satellite trucks and, if compromised, can be used to get a great deal of information about what’s happening nearby, unless precautions are taken.

A 2014 report (PDF) by SnoopWall, an anti-malware developer, found that the ten most popular flashlight apps for Android overreached the permissions they required to run. All of them had permission to capture photos and get network access. In a 2016 CBS report, SnoopWall founder Gary Miliefsky said that one flashlight app his company studied captured audio and transmitted recordings to a server in Beijing.

None of this may have happened in this incident — we’re unlikely to ever know because of the inherently secretive nature of the subject — but it could have happened because of careless disregard for basic security precautions.

Update: On February 3, Senators Tom Udall and Sheldon Whitehouse sent a letter to the president asking about what background checks and security precautions are employed at the Mar-a-Lago estate. No administration officials responded.

The Life of Apps Outside of the Mac App Store

A couple of weeks ago, I linked to Jeffrey Johnson’s account of Underpass, his new app, charting in the Mac App Store with a single sale. I wrote:

Of note, most of the apps ahead of Underpass are third-party implementations of popular iOS apps like Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. And, at number thirteen in the Top Grossing chart, Apple’s long-outdated FaceTime app. That doesn’t sound like a healthy ecosystem.

Underpass is available exclusively in the App Store. Now, I want to look at the opposite of that situation. In the past two months, two other developers have shared their accounts of taking their apps out of the Mac App Store.

First, here’s Bogdan Popescu, writing one hundred days after Dash was removed from the App Store:

All of Dash’s App Store revenue has migrated to direct sales, with a slight increase.

[…]

Most of the App Store users of Dash 3 have migrated their license to the direct version. I was able to use the in-app notification mechanism I had to let them know about what’s going on so that they don’t get cut off from the app they paid for.

Paul Kafasis of Rogue Amoeba, writing about selling Piezo outside of the App Store for a full year:

The Mac App Store previously made up about half of Piezo’s unit sales, so we might have expected to sell half as many copies after exiting the store. Instead, it seems that nearly all of those App Store sales shifted to direct sales. It appears that nearly everyone who would have purchased Piezo via the Mac App Store opted to purchase directly once that was the only option. Far from the Mac App Store helping drive sales to us, it appears we had instead been driving sales away from our own site, and into the Mac App Store.

Remarkable; yet, judging by the condition of the Mac App Store, unsurprising.

The Mac App Store could have been a golden opportunity for developers. In a hypothetical world, having Apple handle credit card processing, automatic updates, quality assurance, and curation, plus putting their marketing muscle behind the store — all of these factors could have made developers happy to give up 30% of their potential revenue. But the large number and aggressive types of limitations required for apps in the store combined with Apple’s rather lax quality controls has made the Mac App Store a combined flea market and glorified Software Update utility.

Google Launches Shareable Location Lists in Maps

Valentina Palladino, Ars Technica:

The new feature adds another layer to the already-existing “save” option in Google Maps. Once you pinpoint a desired location, you can hit the “save” button to reveal a number of premade lists including “Want to Go,” “Starred,” and “Favorites.” Then you can choose the list you want the location to live in, or create a new list with a personalized title like “Vacation.” In Google Maps’ menu, you can find all your saved lists in the “Your Places” folder when you want to recall saved locations. Now each list will have a “share” button as well, which lets you grab its link to share with others or share it via different social networks. This should make it easier to share things like favorite restaurants and shopping locations with visiting out-of-town family and the like.

This is one of those features that most of us aren’t going to use very often, but when we need it, we really need it. If you’re after something similar for Apple Maps, I’ve been using Relay since it launched and I love it.

Deleted Browser History Was Being Synced With iCloud

Vladimir Katalov of ElcomSoft:

Our latest discovery concerns synced Safari history. While researching this sync, we discovered that deleting a browsing history record makes that record disappear from synced devices; however, the record still remains available (but invisible) in iCloud. We kept researching, and discovered that such deleted records can be kept in iCloud for more than a year. We updated Elcomsoft Phone Breaker to give it the ability to extract such deleted records from the cloud. Moreover, we were able to pull additional information about Safari history entries including the exact date and time each record was last visited and deleted!

Katalov says that, since being notified, Apple is now purging records older than two weeks. Apparently, however, they’re retaining synced history items deleted within the past two weeks. I see no logical reason why records of items removed from a user’s browsing history should remain synced for any length of time.

The Web Really Sucks if You Have a Slow Connection

Dan Luu:

A couple years ago, I took a road trip from Wisconsin to Washington and mostly stayed in rural hotels on the way. I expected the internet in rural areas too sparse to have cable internet to be slow, but I was still surprised that a large fraction of the web was inaccessible. Some blogs with lightweight styling were readable, as were pages by academics who hadn’t updated the styling on their website since 1995. But very few commercial websites were usable (other than Google). When I measured my connection, I found that the bandwidth was roughly comparable to what I got with a 56k modem in the 90s. The latency and packetloss were significantly worse than the average day on dialup: latency varied between 500ms and 1000ms and packetloss varied between 1% and 10%. Those numbers are comparable to what I’d see on dialup on a bad day.

Despite my connection being only a bit worse than it was in the 90s, the vast majority of the web wouldn’t load. Why shouldn’t the web work with dialup or a dialup-like connection? It would be one thing if I tried to watch youtube and read pinterest. It’s hard to serve videos and images without bandwidth. But my online interests are quite boring from a media standpoint. Pretty much everything I consume online is plain text, even if it happens to be styled with images and fancy javascript. In fact, I recently tried using w3m (a terminal-based web browser that, by default, doesn’t support css, javascript, or even images) for a week and it turns out there are only two websites I regularly visit that don’t really work in w3m (twitter and zulip, both fundamentally text based sites, at least as I use them).

I’m embarrassed to say that this site, despite my best efforts, remains very slow on a simulated 56K dialup connection, averaging around thirty seconds for the homepage to load. That’s miles better than a typical news site, which would simply fail to load, but it’s nowhere near as good as some of the more stripped-down sites that Luu tested. Since this site has a stylesheet and a little bit of JavaScript, I’m not sure it will ever become that quick, but it’s worth aiming for. Why?

The flaw in the “page weight doesn’t matter because average speed is fast” is that if you average the connection of someone in my apartment building (which is wired for 1Gbps internet) and someone on 56k dialup, you get an average speed of 500 Mbps. That doesn’t mean the person on dialup is actually going to be able to load a 5MB website. The average speed of 3.9 Mbps comes from a 2014 Akamai report, but it’s just an average. If you look at Akamai’s 2016 report, you can find entire countries where more than 90% of IP addresses are slower than that!

Your site may not explicitly target visitors in those countries, but if we’re building websites for the World Wide Web, we ought to be more considerate of users everywhere.

Sufficiently Great

I have a small confession to make. Bad arguments dressed with the tinsel of pseudo-intellectualism are like catnip to me: they drive me crazy, and I’m a total sucker for batting them around. Deep in my heart, I know that’s the intent of the author of any of these articles, yet I can’t help but want to dress them down.

So, here’s Ian Bogost, writing for the Atlantic:

Apple has great design is the biggest myth in technology today.

Alright, I’ll bite.

The only problem with this conclusion: Apple has never accomplished sufficiently great design in its electronics to justify lionizing the pedantry of design at the new Apple campus.

A bold opener. But what is “sufficiently great design”, in the context of industrial design or consumer products? One definition might be that a product becomes widely-imitated, yet never loses its iconic status. Consumer laptops, for example, have coalesced around a blueprint established by the MacBook Air. After the iPhone was released, all smartphones became iPhone iterations. If we reach back a little farther, to before Jony Ive was at Apple, virtually every laptop that succeeded the PowerBook 100 has imitated its layout.

It’s not so much that these products were popular that evidences “sufficiently great design”. It’s that all of these products established the de facto standard for the design of their product category:

  • The PowerBook 100 was the first laptop to be sold with its keyboard near the hinge of the case, creating an area for a palmrest and pointing device below it. That’s been the basic design language of laptops ever since.

  • The first MacBook Air was thin and light, and forecast the way the rest of Apple’s laptops — and then much of the industry’s imitations — would be built. The version first released in 2010 came with solid state storage as standard, and created the blueprint for most of the consumer laptops on sale today.

  • The iPhone’s litany of contributions to the modern smartphone need not be restated. It, once again, set the standard for every phone that followed.

But there’s more to great design than its capacity to be imitated. Design, after all, is about how something works in addition to how it looks. And that’s where Bogost starts to sink his teeth in:

Starting with the iPhone 5S, first released in 2014, Apple adopted a software-controlled fingerprint sensor mounted on the home button. Known as Touch ID, the feature allows users to authenticate to unlock the phone, download products from the App Store, and make payments at participating retailers with Apple Pay. But even the slightest disturbance on a finger makes Touch ID unreliable. Washed your hands recently? Ate a banana? Dug in the dirt of the garden? Touched something too warm, or too cold, for too long? Good luck authenticating with your fingerprint. A mere inconvenience when unlocking the phone, but Apple Pay won’t work at all without Touch ID. So fat chance using that new digital wallet on a rainy day, or after tactically interacting with worldly substances.

Everything that has ever been designed has required a series of decisions based on what’s possible, what’s necessary for the final product, and what reasonable compromises can be made for everything to work correctly. “Sufficiently great design”, in this context, is also about making choices and compromises that produce a better product in typical use.

In this case, the Touch ID sensor allows for a very quick way to authenticate a transaction without requiring anything to be typed or finely-manipulated with one’s fingers. In a typical use case — while holding the phone very close to an NFC sensor at a checkstand, for instance — that’s a better user experience than any currently-available alternative I can think of.

As for Bogost’s specific complaints, I’ve never had anything like those problems with Touch ID on my iPhone. Between the built-in error correction and the fast sensor in my 6S, it works almost unbelievably well virtually every time. On the off chance my fingerprint fails to read, quickly wiping my thumb on a tissue or my jeans is enough to make it work. And, realistically, if your fingers are muddy from digging in the garden, is your first instinct going to be to reach for your smartphone without washing your hands?

In 2008, [Jobs] revealed the first run of the impossibly-thin MacBook Air by sliding it dramatically out of a manila envelope. Amazing! Less so, but not shown: the inch-thick power adapter needed to charge the device. Apple still hasn’t even attempted to reduce the size — and particularly the bulky thickness — of its power supplies, even as it has systematically reduced the girth of its computers.

This argument is silly. AC adaptors are limited by two things: the width of a plug, and physics. AC adaptors are already about the same width as a typical North American or Korean outlet, and they make full use of their available space, mostly for safety reasons.

Bogost’s article contains a series of other complaints: the USB-C ports in the new MacBook Pro, the flaws of autocorrect, iTunes, and larger iPhones that are harder to handle. But poking at these individual products — and I have, too — misses the larger scope of why Apple can be considered great at design. Bogost:

Steve Jobs’s design philosophy was fascist more than it was exacting. The man was a not a demigod of design, but its dictator. He made things get made the way he wanted them made, and his users appreciated his definitiveness and lack of compromise. They mistook those conceits for virtues in the objects themselves.

The argument that Jobs was an unredeeming tyrant has been made countless times while he was alive and since his death. It’s never going to go away. The simple fact is that his general direction was, more often than not, right.

Bogost’s implication that Jobs did not compromise or that he didn’t invite argument or debate is complete bullshit, as has been documented extensively.1 The difference between the compromises that Apple has made while designing their products and those that their competitors have made is that Apple’s have generally been produced from a specific thread of Apple-yness. It’s the reason why Bogost is able to write an article like this where he points out that it’s decidedly unApple-y for the Lightning cable that comes with every new iPhone to require an adaptor to be plugged into a new MacBook. For something like that to feel unApple-y requires a general sense of what does feel Apple-y.

(Also, including the word “fascist” in an article is a great way to get noticed in 2017.)

At a time when every company bows to even the most absurd demands of the consumer, Apple never cared what its customers thought, or wanted. Instead it told them what to like, and how to like it. What a relief! The corporate design autocracy obviates the need for decision-making. Computer users won’t use floppy disks because there is no floppy drive. Later, likewise optical drives. Later, likewise mini-stereo headphone jacks. To ascribe such choices to design — or to courage — is a mistake. As I have argued before, Apple is expert at getting people to commit to Apple’s future without pondering how technology could have evolved differently.

The prior articles Bogost wrote include paragraphs objecting to the superseding of the CD-RW by the iPod and, yes, bemoaning the loss of the floppy disk. Pardon my stating the obvious, but what he fails to acknowledge is that the replacements in every single case he cites are objectively better. An iPod is a far better way to carry around a bunch of music than is a stack of CDs. Going back a generation, I don’t really need to mention how much better it is to listen to real sound recordings than it is the MIDI interpretations of them, because that’s all that would fit on a floppy.

And Apple’s bets have seemed to pay off. While there are myriad flaws in the argument that better products sell more units, the simple fact is that if the issues Bogost raises — including the obligatory whining about the dumping of the headphone jack from the iPhone — were truly show-stopping for most people, most people would not buy one. If you absolutely need a DVD drive in 2017, you’re not going to consider any of Apple’s laptops, and they’re okay with that. Their standpoint on that is, quite literally, by design.

(Also, including the word “autocracy” in an article is a great way to get noticed in 2017.)

The attention to detail around door handles and thresholds might feel like a design methodology so pedantic at the micro-level that it could only ever produce greatness at the macro.

But one could also compare the zombified reality of Apple workers plodding to work over the carefully unperturbed thresholds in their new spaceship headquarters to the sleepy drone of an army built to abide rather than to think, let alone think different. The same invisible doorways lead to and from the authorized chambers of work and gardens of leisure. So exacting!

These are, I think, the paragraphs where Bogost’s argument truly disintegrates. I’ve never worked at Apple, but not a single employee or ex-employee I’ve asked about their time there has responded by stating that they “abide rather than […] think”. When you read anything an ex-employee has written about their time at the company or hear about an interaction that someone has had with a current employee, the clearest thing that comes through is that the people working on these products really, really care about their work. That’s, perhaps, a third pillar of “great design”: true care and passion.

That leads me to addressing an argument that opened Bogost’s essay:

But if Apple designs at its best when attending closely to details like those revealed in the construction of its spaceship headquarters, then presumably the details of its products would stand out as worthy precedents. Yet, when this premise is tested, it comes up wanting. In truth, Apple’s products hide a shambles of bad design under the perfection of sleek exteriors.

“Sufficiently great design” does not, of course, mean “free of imperfections”. But it’s also something that cannot be read solely through details. Bogost’s argument is, therefore, backwards. Apple’s biggest contribution to design has been their ability to project a broader vision of consumer electronics at vast scale while still keeping an eye on the details.

Maybe you’re someone who’s getting bored with Apple. Maybe you’re frustrated by some of the decisions they’ve made — anyone who reads this site regularly will know that I certainly am. But, as I wrote above, great design is a process of compromises and decisions. Apple’s products are not perfect, but the company’s contributions to design from both aesthetic and functional perspectives is impossible to deny. They have, truly, produced some of the most iconic, popular, industry-changing, revolutionary designs of the past fifty years. If that’s not “sufficiently great”, I don’t know what is.


  1. Steve Jobs at D in 2007: “At Apple it’s about ideas, and we argue about ideas constantly.” ↩︎

Apple’s Goals for the Mac Operating System

Stephen Hackett:

In that keynote — which has been mostly forgotten today — Schiller said that Mac OS X was designed to power the Mac “at least fifteen years, or more.”

We now live in that more timeframe.

Schiller’s statement was prescient — last year, around the fifteenth anniversary of his comment, Mac OS X was rebranded to be more in line with the nomenclature used for Apple’s other operating systems.

FCC Chair Ajit Pai, Telecom Companies’ Best Friend

Cecilia Kang of the New York Times summarizes new FCC char Ajit Pai’s first few days on the job:

Mr. Pai took a first swipe at net neutrality rules designed to ensure equal access to content on the internet. He stopped nine companies from providing discounted high-speed internet service to low-income individuals. He withdrew an effort to keep prison phone rates down, and he scrapped a proposal to break open the cable box market.

In total, as the chairman of the F.C.C., Mr. Pai released about a dozen actions in the last week, many buried in the agency’s website and not publicly announced, stunning consumer advocacy groups and telecom analysts. They said Mr. Pai’s message was clear: The F.C.C., an independent agency, will mirror the Trump administration’s rapid unwinding of government regulations that businesses fought against during the Obama administration.

“With these strong-arm tactics, Chairman Pai is showing his true stripes,” said Matt Wood, the policy director at the consumer group Free Press.

“The public wants an F.C.C. that helps people,” he added. “Instead, it got one that does favors for the powerful corporations that its chairman used to work for.”

Hamza Shaban at Buzzfeed:

While Chair Pai has declined to say what measures he will take to dismantle or diminish net neutrality, he made his opposition to the open internet rules clear during his first meeting as the agency’s chief last week. “My present position is pretty simple: I favor a free and open internet and I oppose Title II,” he said, referring to the classification of broadband companies as akin to utilities, subject to more robust regulation.

In response to the criticism of Chair Pai at the press conference Tuesday, a spokesperson for the FCC told BuzzFeed News: “Consistent with the bipartisan consensus dating back to the Clinton Administration, Chairman Pai supports a free and open Internet but opposes heavy-handed Title II regulation. The Internet was free and open before the 2015 party-line vote imposing these Depression-Era regulations.”

The reversal of the decision to classify ISPs as common carriers would be a serious setback for net neutrality. Pai has previously made clear his objection to a Title II classification for ISPs. I don’t see how the principles of net neutrality can be effectively enforced without resorting to Title II.

The State of iBooks and Companion Software

Daniel Steinberg:

I’ve joked that if Eddie Cue loved reading the way he clearly loves music, then iBooks, the iBookstore, and iBooks Author would be amazing. Not only aren’t they amazing, they aren’t even good.

It’s like they’ve assigned a committed carnivore to design the meals and cook for Vegans. You need someone who loves and understands vegetables and shares the commitment to not using meat or meat products.

You’ve probably seen this piece shared all over, and rightfully so: Apple has barely mentioned iBooks in the past year, and — outside of home screen shots — iBooks isn’t featured on any of Apple’s iPad product webpages.

On iBooks Author, Steinberg writes:

iBooks Author could have been a trojan horse into the personal publishing business. It would have been classic Apple. Instead of small authors going to Amazon’s platform, they would have started with iBooks Author. Apple should have made it easy for them to push to Amazon as well. Why? Because these people wanted to publish on Amazon but they weren’t considering publishing with Apple. Thousands of authors would have come to Apple to create content and stayed with Apple after publishing content there.

OK, so iBooks Author is essentially abandonware, what about iBooks and the iBookstore.

Bradley Metrock takes issue with Steinberg’s use of “abandonware”:

Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: iBooks Author isn’t abandonware, as this post claims. Calling iBooks Author ‘abandonware’ is not just factually false, but it is also a disrespectful slap in the face to the growing, diverse communities of content creators out there using it. I wish that description weren’t in this otherwise strong and insightful post.

iBooks Author was most recently updated in September; prior to that, it was updated almost exactly one year prior. That’s a glacial pace for an app, but it isn’t out of line with many of Apple’s other Mac applications. Pages, for example, saw its last major update to 6.0 in September, and the version prior — 5.6 — was released in October 2015. In between these updates were two minor bug fixing releases.

A 2016 poll by Pew Research indicated that Americans aged 18–29 were the most likely of any adult age group to have read a book in any format in the prior twelve months, and the most likely to have read an e-book in the same timeframe. That figure is likely juiced by required post-secondary reading, but there’s clearly a big market of avid readers out there. Maybe Apple isn’t the right company to go after them, but I think there’s a tremendous opportunity that Apple is sleeping on.

The Best WordPress Client for the Mac

Stephen Hackett reviewed for the Sweet Setup different WordPress clients for the Mac, and came to the correct conclusion:

If you’re like me and would rather use a desktop application than a web app to manage your WordPress site, MarsEdit is the best route. It’s full of features, easy to use, and feels right at home on macOS.

There really is no contest. I only wish I could find something as good as MarsEdit for my iPhone and iPad.

Deteriorating Belief in Silicon Valley

For the Atlantic, Anna Wiener reviewed Alexandra Wolfe’s new book about Thiel Fellowship recipients from 2011 until 2016:

[Wolfe] also undercuts her own point about the disruptive ethos of the place. “Today’s uber-nerds are like the robber barons of the industrial revolution whose steel and automobile manufacturing capabilities changed entire industries,” she writes. “But instead of massive factories and mills, they’re doing it with little buttons.” Portraying Silicon Valley’s powerful as “uber-nerds” who struck it rich is as reductive and unhelpful as referring to technology that integrates personal payment information and location tracking as “little buttons.” The effect is not only to protect them behind the shield of presumed harmlessness, but also to exempt them from the scrutiny that their economic and political power should invite.

The sort of mythology that celebrates a small handful of visionaries and co-founders blurs important social realities. Technology has always been a collective project. The industry is also cyclical. Many failed ideas have been resuscitated and rebranded as successful products and services, owned and managed by people other than their originators. Behind almost every popular app or website today lie numerous shadow versions that have been sloughed away by time. Yet recognition of the group nature of the enterprise would undermine a myth that legitimizes the consolidation of profit, for the most part, among a small group of people.

This is a recurring trope I’ve seen amongst those who report on Silicon Valley — even from technology-centric reporters.

The Neglected Touch Down State

Max Rudberg:

When iOS 10 was introduced, I had hoped to see more borrowed from watchOS, because it does a great job of providing animated feedback to taps of buttons and other elements.

[…]

In comparison, iOS feels stiff to the touch.

This is, as always, a great post from Rudberg. I think his proposed example shows promise, but I wonder if it’s something that would complement 3D Touch actions or distract from them.

Seven Years of ‘A Big iPhone’

Dr. Drang:

The biggest problem for the iPad is Apple’s unwillingness to let it become its own thing. Development of iOS is driven by the iPhone, which probably shouldn’t have the tools of a regular computer. But the iPad needs at least some of those tools if it’s to fulfill Apple’s promise to be a laptop replacement. Being yoked to the iPhone is holding it back.

This feels exactly right to me. The biggest news in iPad in recent years was the introduction of split screen multitasking and picture-in-picture video, neither of which are available on the iPhone.

Apple has long said that the iPad’s big display provides the opportunity to create a completely different app experience. At the first Retina iPad event, Tim Cook even spent stage time mocking Android tablet apps that looked like large phone apps.

But now, five years after that event, it’s not so much the apps that are scaled-up versions of a smartphone, but rather that the operating system seems largely driven by what the iPhone can do. This was an early criticism of the iPad, but I felt it was unwarranted at the time — a larger version of a familiar interface is a great way to introduce a new product category.

Five years on, I wish it felt a little more like the iPad got to be true to itself. I’m not saying that it needs its own operating system or anything, but when I see a screenshot of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s home screen that looks broadly identical to an upscaled version of my iPad Mini, I see a less compelling rationale for upgrading.

Bundled Lightning Cables Are Still USB-A Models

In my confused coverage of the definitely not new “Ultra Accessory Connector” that appeared on the confidential MFi partner site earlier today, I wrote:

Amidst the migration of Mac peripherals to USB-C, and the replacement of wired headphones with wireless models, I’m a little confused about how this fits into the bigger picture.

The short answer is that the UAC connector just another option for accessory makers, in addition to USB-A, USB-C, and Lightning. I don’t know how many manufacturers will end up using it over other connector options, but there’s one company I’m surprised hasn’t made the commitment towards a newer connector: Apple. Every new iPhone and iPad is sold with a USB-A to Lightning cable, which means they can’t be connected to a new Mac without an adaptor.

Even Apple’s latest and greatest accessories come with a USB-A Lightning cable. Jack Slater:

The AirPods charging case uses a USB-A to Lightning adapter. It’s kind of odd that for $159 you don’t get an AC adapter, although you do get the cable in the box.

To be fair, I suppose the AirPods and iOS devices aren’t explicitly designed as Mac accessories, though I expect a lot of people will use their Mac to charge those products.

So what about products that are explicitly designed as Mac accessories? All three of Apple’s Magic accessories are also bundled with — you guessed it — USB-A-to-Lightning cables. I just called my local Apple Store and they told me that there’s no way to simply swap the bundled cables; a USB-C Lightning cable would be a separate purchase.

I don’t think it’s odd that an AC adaptor isn’t included with a set of AirPods. I do think it’s wrong that you don’t get a USB-C-to-Lightning cable in the box for any of these products, especially since Apple has now sold millions of units of the MacBook and new MacBook Pro. iPods used to include FireWire and USB cables so you could pick what you wanted to use; why not do the same for USB-C? It would cut into the margins for each of these products, but I think it would send a strong message that Apple is truly committed to it as the connector of the future.

Amicus Brief Filed by 127 Companies Opposing Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration

The signatories are a who’s who of tech giants: Apple, Autodesk, Dropbox, eBay, Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Netflix, Spotify, Square, Twitter, and Uber. The inclusion of the latter signee dovetails nicely with the news that Travis Kalanick left Trump’s advisory council late last week.

Notably absent from the list: Amazon. Even SpaceX and Tesla are signatories to the amicus brief, despite Elon Musk’s somewhat warm relationship with the Trump administration. It turns out that Amazon supported the Washington state legal case that caused a judge to issue a restraining order to prevent enforcement of Trump’s executive order, but they apparently can’t sign onto this amicus brief, according to JP Mangalindan:

That’s because Seattle-based Amazon had already filed a declaration in the same case explaining how the ban negatively affects the e-commerce giant. Washington’s attorney general advised Amazon not to join the amicus brief since it’s a witness in the original lawsuit, according to a source familiar with the matter.

It turns out that Microsoft, also absent from the amicus brief, filed a declaration in the original case brought by Washington, as well.

Here’s the thing: Microsoft is not absent from the amicus brief — they’re right there on page 41, the sixtieth signee. I’ve reached out to Mangalindan to ask how that squares up.