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Archives — Pixel Envy

Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Gradual Feature Rollouts Can Generate Positive Press Coverage Despite Little Real-World Availability

Brian Feldman, New York magazine:

The feature “rollout” is a staple of tech launches. A feature technically goes live, but when it will actually reach all users is left vague. Dashboards tabulating screen time rolled out last year, making their way to users over the course of weeks. Instagram’s anti-bullying tools rolled out a couple of months ago. A year ago, a feature to unsend messages in Messenger went live … in Bolivia, Colombia, Lithuania, and Poland, until eventually making its way to everyone else. This rollout tactic gives major tech platforms a way to create the illusion that they are for everyone. Tech companies get outlets to write up press releases about features going live, even if the features are not, in many cases, actually live.

A cautionary approach to rolling out new features by testing and refining them in smaller markets is not a problem. The problem is that these features are often announced in press releases and news stores as though they are widely available when they aren’t. In the New York Times’ coverage of Facebook’s new tool to control data collection across the web, it isn’t mentioned until the very last paragraph that it is only available in Ireland, South Korea, and Spain, with no timeline for U.S. or worldwide access. There’s no sign that Facebook is restricting the feature to these markets for licensing, translation, or legal reasons; it is a strategic decision to test how it works for users, and how much it impacts the company’s data gathering. Reporters should reserve praise and more accurately describe these soft launches for what they are: tests in specific markets.

Apple Says Ultra Wideband Is Why iPhone 11 Models Are Using Location Services Even When All Toggles Are Set to ‘Off’, Promises Fix Soon

Brian Krebs:

The privacy policy available from the iPhone’s Location Services screen says, “If Location Services is on, your iPhone will periodically send the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers (where supported by a device) in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple, to be used for augmenting this crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower locations.”

The policy explains users can disable all location services entirely with one swipe (by navigating to Settings > Privacy > Location Services, then switching “Location Services” to “off”). When one does this, the location services indicator — a small diagonal upward arrow to the left of the battery icon — no longer appears unless Location Services is re-enabled.

The policy continues: “You can also disable location-based system services by tapping on System Services and turning off each location-based system service.” But apparently there are some system services on this model (and possibly other iPhone 11 models) which request location data and cannot be disabled by users without completely turning off location services, as the arrow icon still appears periodically even after individually disabling all system services that use location.

Zack Whittaker, TechCruch:

“Ultra wideband technology is an industry standard technology and is subject to international regulatory requirements that require it to be turned off in certain locations,” an Apple spokesperson told TechCrunch. “iOS uses Location Services to help determine if an iPhone is in these prohibited locations in order to disable ultra wideband and comply with regulations.”

“The management of ultra wideband compliance and its use of location data is done entirely on the device and Apple is not collecting user location data,” the spokesperson said.

That seems to back up what experts have discerned so far. Will Strafach, chief executive at Guardian Firewall and iOS security expert, said in a tweet that his analysis showed there was “no evidence” that any location data is sent to a remote server.

Apple said it will provide a new dedicated toggle option for the feature in an upcoming iOS update.

This makes complete sense to me and appears to be nothing more than a mistake in not providing a toggle specifically for UWB. It seems that a risk of marketing a company as uniquely privacy-friendly is that any slip-up is magnified a hundredfold and treated as evidence that every tech company is basically the same.

A More Incremental iOS

One of the more noticeable changes in recent iOS releases is just how many of them there are. There were ten versions each of iOS 6 and 7, but there were sixteen versions of iOS 11, and fifteen of iOS 12.

iOS 13 has distinguished itself by racing to a x.2 version number faster than any other iOS release family — on October 28 — and has received two further version increments since. This rapid-fire pace of updates has been noticeable, to say the least, and helps illustrate a shift in the way iOS releases are handled.

Which brings me to a confession: I’ve slightly misled you. Merely counting the number of software updates isn’t necessarily a fair way of assessing how rapidly each version changes. For example, while both iOS 6 and 7 had ten versions each, they were clustered in low version numbers. iOS 6 had three 6.0 releases and, oddly, a whole bunch under 6.1; iOS 7’s were the reverse.1

In fact, it used to be the case that iOS rarely breached the x.2 release cycle at all. The first version to get to an x.3 release was iOS 4, but that was also the year that the company merged iPhone and iPad versions in 4.2. You have to skip all the way to iOS 8 to find another x.3 release; after that, though, every version of iOS has gotten to x.3, and iOS 8, 10, and 11 have each seen a series of x.4 releases as well.

iOS 13 is currently at 13.2.3; the developer beta is at 13.3, and 13.4 is being tested internally. Excluding the beta seeds, there have already been eight versions of iOS 13 released so far, and it has been available to the general public for less than three months.

And, again, just looking at the number of versions belies the impact of their contents. In addition to myriad bug fixes, iOS 13’s updates have introduced or reintroduced features that were announced at WWDC, but which did not appear in the gold master of 13.0. A similar pattern occurred with iOS 11 and 12: Apple announced, demoed, and often even released into beta features that were ultimately pulled from the x.0 version, before reappearing in a later update.

This indicates a shift in Apple’s product release strategy — not just from monumental updates to iterative ones, but also from just-in-time feature announcements to early previews. At WWDC, the iOS announcement was implied to be an indication of everything that would be available in the x.0 release; now, it’s a peek at everything that will be available across the entire release cycle.

I do not think that this is inherently problematic, or even concerning. But, so far, it does not seem to be a deliberate strategy. From then outside, it feels far more like an accidental result of announcing features too early — a predictable consequence of which is that announcements may have to be walked back. There are plenty of examples of this in Apple’s history, as well as the tech market and other industries as a whole. But you may recall that Apple’s push notification service was announced for an iPhone OS 2 release, but it was pushed back to iPhone OS 3 due to scalability concerns. So, this is not a new problem, but it is a more frequent concern lately, as features are increasingly deferred to later software updates.

I would rather features be stable; I do not think there is any reason that Apple should rush to release something before it’s ready. But I do wish this new strategy came across as a deliberate choice rather than what I perceive to be a lack of internal coordination.


  1. I’ve experienced the tedium of plotting the iOS version release history as a spreadsheet so you don’t have to. ↩︎

BMW Will No Longer Charge a Subscription Fee to Use CarPlay

Zac Palmer, Autoblog:

Apple CarPlay in BMW vehicles is finally going to be free. Hallelujah! Autocar reported that BMW is eliminating the subscription charge for folks in the U.K. earlier today, and we just received confirmation from BMW that the change applies to U.S. BMW owners as well.

A BMW spokesperson told us that they “can confirm that this change does also apply to the U.S. market.” When we asked why the sudden change of heart, the same spokesperson sent us this statement: “BMW is always looking to satisfy our customers’ needs and this policy change is intended to provide BMW owners with a better ownership experience.”

BMW was the only carmaker to institute a subscription scheme for CarPlay, claiming that Apple was “changing its fee structure”. No word on whether Apple reversed a decision that, as best as I can tell, never happened.

Inside the First Day of the Elon Musk Defamation Trial

Elizabeth Lopatto, the Verge:

Then it was time for opening statements. Taylor Wilson, a partner at L. Lin Wood and a lawyer for the plaintiff, put up a chart I couldn’t see with a lot of dates on it. (The chart was aimed at the jury and would continue to obscure my view all day.) He then walked through the dates of the basic action around the tweets with the energy of a nervous middle schooler doing a monologue at the school play. Not only did Musk call Unsworth a “pedo guy,” Wilson pointed out, when Kevin Beaumont sarcastically called the tweet “classy,” Musk replied “bet you a signed dollar it’s true.” (The “signed dollar” tweet has also been deleted.)

Musk apologized on July 17, but that wasn’t the end of it. Wilson rather irritably told the court that despite the apology, Musk did not retract his “worldwide accusation on Twitter” that Unsworth was a pedophile. Wilson then told the court that Musk’s family office retained a PI to look into Unsworth and on August 28th, instructed the investigator to leak negative information to the press. (It would later emerge that the PI was, in fact, a con man.)

Musk is not coming across particularly well — which is not surprising for someone who broadcast an insinuation, without any shred of evidence, that a barely-public person was a pedophile. I still cannot understand why he didn’t settle and retract his claims. Arrogance, perhaps.

You will thank your comment blocking browser extension when reading this and seemingly all articles reporting on the trial, as it prevents you from enduring a toxic wasteland of moronic pseudo-legal arguments and Musk worship. Lopatto’s piece, on the other hand, is terrific.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin Step Away From Day-to-Day Operations at Alphabet, Announce Sundar Pichai Will Be CEO of Alphabet and Google

Larry Page and Sergey Brin:

Today, in 2019, if the company was a person, it would be a young adult of 21 and it would be time to leave the roost. While it has been a tremendous privilege to be deeply involved in the day-to-day management of the company for so long, we believe it’s time to assume the role of proud parents — offering advice and love, but not daily nagging!

With Alphabet now well-established, and Google and the Other Bets operating effectively as independent companies, it’s the natural time to simplify our management structure. We’ve never been ones to hold on to management roles when we think there’s a better way to run the company. And Alphabet and Google no longer need two CEOs and a President. Going forward, Sundar will be the CEO of both Google and Alphabet. He will be the executive responsible and accountable for leading Google, and managing Alphabet’s investment in our portfolio of Other Bets. We are deeply committed to Google and Alphabet for the long term, and will remain actively involved as Board members, shareholders and co-founders. In addition, we plan to continue talking with Sundar regularly, especially on topics we’re passionate about!

This seems like huge news — and I suppose it inherently is a big deal for co-founders to step back from their company — but it does not mean that Brin and Page won’t be involved in Alphabet’s direction. This announcement contains nothing about the co-founders’ holding of unique shares that give them extraordinary control over the company. It also doesn’t clarify why the Alphabet holding company was created, what purpose it serves now, and why it needs to be distinct from Google.

Gatekeeper’s Security Through Obscurity

Chuq Von Rospach:

The first time I tried to publish new images to Flickr, Lightroom aborted and the OS put up a dialog warning me that the app “magick” isn’t signed and so it might be dangerous, so the OS wouldn’t let it launch. “magick” is part of the ImageMagick graphics tool suite, a commonly used set of image manipulation tools; as of today the developers haven’t signed it with a developer certificate from Apple, so Apple’s Gatekeeper will reject it.

You can tell the OS to let the app run, but it’s not obvious where to do that. Here’s how:

Try to export some images and get the warning dialog. Then open up the System Preferences app and navigate to the “Security and Privacy” section and the “General” tab. At the bottom of that tab, you should see some text similar to the warning you got in the dialog. There’s an “Allow” button there. If you click it, you’re approving that app as something that’s okay to be launched.

Michael Tsai:

When launching an app directly, the workaround is easier: you can Control-click and choose Open from the contextual menu.

In both cases, why doesn’t the alert tell you how to resolve the problem (if you do, in fact, trust the software)? In my view, this is poor design and essentially security through obscurity. Apple decided that they don’t want you to run unsigned software, but they don’t want to (or realistically can’t) completely forbid it, so they provide an escape hatch but keep it hidden. macOS doesn’t trust the user to make the right decision, so it acts as though there’s no choice.

The solution to these errors reminds me a little of the de facto standard for burying rarely-toggled options in hidden preferences set via the command line. It’s a pretty clever trick. But the dialog provides no indication that this is possible; it treats unsigned apps as inherently dangerous, not just a risk for the user to take. I know about the secondary-click-to-open trick, but I always forget it when I launch an unsigned app and get spooked before remembering how to proceed.

Perhaps this is the intention, but it makes security far too visible to the user and makes solutions far too opaque. The dialog is unhelpful for average users, and irksome for more technically-capable users. It’s not striking a good balance.

Descriptive error messages are useful; silent failures, misleading dialogs, and vague errors are not.

Putin Signs Law Making Russian Apps Mandatory on Devices Sold There by July

Anton Zverev and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Reuters:

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday signed legislation requiring all smartphones, computers and smart TV sets sold in the country to come pre-installed with Russian software.

[…]

The country’s mobile phone market is dominated by foreign companies including Apple, Samsung and Huawei. The legislation signed by Putin said the government would come up with a list of Russian applications that would need to be installed on the different devices.

Petr Mironenko and Valeria Pozychanyuk, the Bell (via Tim Hardwick at MacRumors; Google translated):

According to a profile official, in summer in informal conversations it was said that the main goal of the bill is Apple, which they are trying to oblige the law to install Russian applications on iPhones and iPads. But the iOS operating system that Apple uses does not at all imply the ability to preinstall third-party applications.

At one of the meetings, Apple representatives warned that the introduction of such standards would force the company to “revise its business model in Russia, ” Vedomosti wrote in the summer. As of September, the company’s position has not changed, the official said. “The company then took this position: we will show you the middle finger, your market is a very small segment of our business, its loss is insignificant,” he says. Perhaps the authors of the project were inspired by the example of China, from where, after the adoption of similar rules, no one left, admits The Bell’s interlocutor. But Russia is not China, there are no levers of pressure on Apple, he states.

I’m not sure what Chinese law the writers are referring to. The only laws restricting smartphone apps that I can find being passed by China include one that prohibits preinstalled apps that invade users’ privacy without permission — presumably, this does not include government monitored services — and one that requires the ability to remove preinstalled apps. I cannot find a record of a Chinese law that requires the installation of software on devices sold in the country.

This Russian law really is something else. While I could see a situation in which certain apps aren’t available in Russia, I cannot imagine that Apple would sell iPhones specially customized in accordance with the Russian government’s wishes. That’s an indefensible precedent. Russia’s internet policy goals are increasingly distant from the rest of the world. If isolation is what they wish for, the rest of us should not be dragged along.

Google Launches a Messaging App

Nick Statt, the Verge:

Now, when you want to share a photo, you no longer have to create an entire album. You can send a one-off message to a friend, so long as they also have Google Photos installed, that contains a photo, just as you would on Instagram, Snapchat, SMS, or any other chat app. If you want to turn that thread into a conversation, you can both start chatting, as well as react to the photos with likes and share more. That way, the photos become a starting point for a conversation, much in the way photos have become just another form of communicating on social platforms.

Since Google Photos is now, effectively, a standalone messaging app in addition to being a place for your photo library, it brings the total count of apps made by the company which have some sort of chat functionality up to six.

‘60 Minutes’ Interviews Susan Wojcicki About the Improbability of Moderating YouTube

Lesley Stahl of CBS’ 60 Minutes interviewed Susan Wojcicki about the state of YouTube:

And what about medical quackery on the site? Like turmeric can reverse cancer; bleach cures autism; vaccines cause autism.

Once you watch one of these, YouTube’s algorithms might recommend you watch similar content. But no matter how harmful or untruthful, YouTube can’t be held liable for any content, due to a legal protection called Section 230.

Lesley Stahl The law under 230 does not hold you responsible for user-generated content. But in that you recommend things, sometimes 1,000 times, sometimes 5,000 times, shouldn’t you be held responsible for that material, because you recommend it?

Susan Wojcicki Well, our systems wouldn’t work without recommending. And so if—

Lesley Stahl I’m not saying don’t recommend. I’m just saying be responsible for when you recommend so many times.

Susan Wojcicki If we were held liable for every single piece of content that we recommended, we would have to review it. That would mean there’d be a much smaller set of information that people would be finding. Much, much smaller.

I entirely buy the near-impossibility of moderating a platform where hundreds of hours of video are uploaded every second. It seems plausible that uploads could be held for initial machine review, with a human-assisted second stage — particularly for new accounts — but that’s kind of nitpicking at YouTube’s scale. It would not be preferable to hold YouTube legally accountable for the videos users upload.

However, I do not buy for one second that YouTube should not be held morally accountable for the videos it recommends. The process and intention of recommendations is entirely in YouTube’s hands, and they can adjust it as they choose. Watching a video from a reputable newspaper should not suggest a video from a hate group in its “Up Next” feature. Conspiracy theories should not be the first search result, for example; they should be far harder to find. YouTube clearly agrees, and have been making changes as a result. But it isn’t enough. It’s misleading to paint uploads and recommendations with the same brush, and it is worrying that a lack of legal obligations is used to justify moral inaction.

Andrew Sullivan, Internet Society CEO, Arrogantly Deflects Questions About the Sale of the .Org Registry to a Private Equity Firm

Kieren McCarthy, the Register:

“I did expect some people to be unhappy with the decision, I expected some pushback,” he told The Register, adding: “But the level of pushback has been very strong.”

He was aware, he says, that people would not like two key aspects of the decision: the move from a non-profit model to a for-profit one; and the lack of consultation. […]

Translation: “I, Andrew Sullivan, thought I could get away with exploiting charities and not-for-profits so long as I did so quietly. However, this plan has backfired spectacularly because it turns out that people actually pay attention to this stuff. Who knew?”

[…] He had explanations ready for both: “The registry business is still a business, and this represented a really big opportunity, and one that is good for PIR [Public Interest Registry].”

As for the lack of consultation: “We didn’t go looking for this. If we had done that [consulted publicly about the sale .org], the opportunity would have been lost. If we had done it in public, it would have created a lot of uncertainty without any benefit.”

Translation: “If we had told people about this before the sale, it would have meant answering awkward questions that I very much wish to avoid — then and now.”

Just why is ISOC approving this deal, going back on nearly two decades of non-profit stewardship and infuriating many of its ardent supporters? Is it just money?

Yes and no.

“The lump sum is definitely a benefit,” he admits, before arguing passionately about ISOC’s core missions. “The work ISOC does is focused on policies and connecting the unconnected. There is already a community organisation that covers domain names – and that’s ICANN.”

Translation: “This is entirely about the money.”

Publishers Are Applying Onerous Restrictions on Ebooks at Libraries

Rosa Saba of the Star, reporting on MacMillan’s restrictions on ebooks leant to library patrons:

There are four main issues libraries are having when it comes to accessing ebooks and e-audiobooks, she said. The first is cost: ebooks or e-audiobooks can cost up to five times the price of a print copy for a library, she said.

The second issue is the rise in metered access or expiry dates for ebook licenses. More and more, publishers are making ebook licenses expire after two years, or after a certain number of uses.

Third, some e-audiobooks just aren’t available to libraries at all. That’s because companies like Audible have exclusivity rights on certain titles, blocking libraries from accessing them.

And of course, there’s the recent change by MacMillan, a new type of restriction.

Jon Stone:

Can you imagine the hysterical reaction if someone had suggested the creation of public libraries today. ‘For free? How are you going to pay for that, STALIN?’

This is not a unique observation in the world of tweet-based observations, but it has remained a nagging thought in the back of my head for years. Libraries have nimbly adapted as they continue to serve community needs, in spite of ridiculous doubts about their continued relevance and twenty-first century roadblocks like those reported above. Libraries deserve ongoing support for the greater good; DRM and other gatekeepers to learning are antithetical to their mission and role.

From Garages to Geopolitical Quagmires

This Crimea situation is a real shitshow. And so is Apple’s response to it.

Last night, I oversimplified my reaction to Apple’s compliance with Russia’s requirement that maps display Crimea as Russian territory when those maps are viewed in Russia. There’s some subtlety that I neglected to dive into that doesn’t change my objection to Apple’s acquiescence, but helps provide some clarity on why it is objectionable.

The first thing to know is that Apple is not unique in how it recognizes Crimea and disputed territory elsewhere. Google has a similar policy, even saying to Tass, a Russian news agency, that they “fixed a bug” that indicated Crimea was Ukrainian territory. This is similar to the obviously misleading language used by Russia to describe Apple’s change yesterday. Here WeGo — originally developed by Nokia before being spun off as its own company — shows Crimean addresses as Russian when browsing from within Russia, and Ukrainian when browsing elsewhere.

But other mapping software still retains Ukraine’s territorial claim over Crimea, even when browsing using a Russian proxy, including Microsoft’s Bing Maps. OpenStreetMap — used by Facebook, Foursquare, and others — seems to take a middle-ground approach with Crimean addresses shown as being within Ukraine, but with a border around the entire peninsula as though it’s its own country.

This is also a situation that is not entirely unique to Ukraine, Russia, and Crimea. Maps with countries and cities and borders are inherently political — it’s right there in the name — and there are dozens of disputes over borders and sovereignty all around the world. The display of this disputed land is handled differently depending on mapping software and region but, due to the nature of things that are location dependent, this is devilishly difficult to test. I am still not entirely confident in what I found. For example, the region of Kashmir displays in Apple Maps and Google Maps on my iPad as disputed territories; but, if I use Google Maps on the web and switch its region to India, it becomes solidly Indian. A 1961 law prohibits making maps of India that are incongruous with the one made by the Survey of India, so I imagine that Apple’s map would follow suit — but I cannot verify that.

I haven’t mentioned Israel and Palestine which, suffice to say, as Jon Stewart once put it, is a “bottomless cup of sadness”.

So it’s not a situation that is specific to Apple’s maps app, nor is it specific to Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory. But it remains one of several recent examples of tyrannical leaders wielding influence over American tech companies to further their propaganda campaigns. Apple and Google have little choice but to comply with the laws of the regions in which they operate, no matter how authoritarian.

But they would also not be forced to be used as vehicles for disinformation if they chose not to operate within countries that require such compliance. This doesn’t have to be a wholesale withdrawal. Apple doesn’t have to include Weather or Maps on iPhones sold in Russia, for example; Google has the ability to prevent its own maps app from being accessed from within the country. I’m not saying that either company should do this, and I’m sure this solution was at least suggested at both and was clearly shot down for reasons not publicly known.

This also becomes vastly more difficult when it comes to Apple’s relationship with Chinese authorities. In August, Google’s Project Zero team announced that iOS vulnerabilities that were patched earlier in the year were actively exploited. Reporters put together the clues and established that the Chinese government was likely responsible for hacking into websites that targeted the oppressed Uyghur population. But Apple’s response mostly nitpicked Google’s description and did not acknowledge the real damage these security bugs caused. Did they worry about whether their Chinese manufacturing facilities would be impacted by a more complete response that acknowledged the damage these vulnerabilities inflicted upon Uyghurs? I don’t know, but it’s awfully concerning that it’s a question that can reasonably be asked. If this was a worry, I maintain that Apple ought to have stayed silent and let press reports do the talking — but that is a last-ditch option that is only slightly more preferable than a complete response. Their purely defensive response was misleading, weak, and capitulating.

Quite simply, any company operating worldwide must set a line that it will not cross. There cannot be limitless ethical bending to appease an audience of countries ranging from liberal democracies to ruthless authoritarian states. Otherwise, products and services will morph from tools for customers into tools for dictators. There is unambiguous precedence.

I’m sure the founders of today’s tech giants did not consider any of this in their nascent days spent in proverbial Silicon Valley garages. Nevertheless, they must respect their responsibility now.

Apple Bows to Demands That They Show Crimea as Russian Territory in Russia

Will Vernon:

Apple has complied with Moscow’s demands to show Crimea, annexed from Ukraine in 2014, as Russian territory. Crimea & the cities of Sevastopol & Simferopol are now displayed as Rus. territory on Apple’s map & weather apps when used in Russia.

The United Nations continues to recognize Crimea as a Ukrainian territory, describing Russia’s presence on the peninsula as an “occupation”. The Russian state spun Apple’s labelling as an “inaccuracy”, as they are wont to do.

Whitney Kimball, Gizmodo:

Earlier this year, Foreign Policy reported that Russia had successfully compelled Apple to store Russian users’ data on servers in Russia — adding that if it follows Russian counterterrorism law, it would be forced to decrypt and surrender user data to the government.

In 2017, Apple removed LinkedIn from the App Store in Russia, and there was some speculation that Apple had quietly stopped updating Telegram in the wake of Russia’s call for a ban on the app. (It eventually did make the updates.)

Earlier this year, I linked to the Foreign Policy report on Apple’s migration of Russian users’ iCloud data to local servers, wondering where the company would draw the line. Apple’s limits haven’t been found yet, as it slowly but surely capitulates to strongman leaders and authoritarian states. Give them an inch, they’ll take a peninsula.

Registering a .Gov Domain Requires Only a Little Bit of Wire Fraud

Brian Krebs:

Many readers probably believe they can trust links and emails coming from U.S. federal government domain names, or else assume there are at least more stringent verification requirements involved in obtaining a .gov domain versus a commercial one ending in .com or .org. But a recent experience suggests this trust may be severely misplaced, and that it is relatively straightforward for anyone to obtain their very own .gov domain.

Earlier this month, KrebsOnSecurity received an email from a researcher who said he got a .gov domain simply by filling out and emailing an online form, grabbing some letterhead off the homepage of a small U.S. town that only has a “.us” domain name, and impersonating the town’s mayor in the application.

The webpage for the DotGov registry, operated by the General Services Administration, hilariously states that “bona fide government services should be easy to identify on the internet”. They sure should.

By the way, the .gov domain extension is a bizarrely U.S.-only feature of the web that should eventually be abolished. Virtually every other country has its government services associated with a second-level domain with a country-specific domain extension — in Canada, for instance, we use .gc.ca; in the U.K., it’s .gov.uk. American government institutions should be required to use a specific .us address for consistency and equality. Arguably, .mil should follow suit in being decommissioned, and .edu could become available worldwide.

Lawmakers Question Apple’s Changes to Location Tracking in iOS 13 on Anticompetitive Grounds

Reed Albergotti, Washington Post:

Historically, app makers could ask users for permission to track their location even when they’re not using the app. That was helpful for services that tracked where a user parked their car or where they may have lost a device paired to the phone. But in the new update, app makers can no longer ask for that functionality when an app is first set up — a potentially devastating blow to competitors such as Tile, maker of Bluetooth trackers that help people find lost items.

By contrast, Apple tracks iPhone users’ location at all time — and users can’t opt out unless they go deep into Apple’s labyrinthine menu of settings.

It isn’t exactly true that iPhone users’ locations are always being tracked by the system. Users are asked when setting up their iOS device whether they would like to enable location-based services; they are not automatically opted in. But once a user sets their device up, it’s unlikely they’ll change that setting. There is huge power in being the default, particularly when that’s the default across the entire system for any and all of Apple’s own services that require location access.

There is a fair argument about how this makes sense. Buyers, presumably, have an implied trust in the first-party device manufacturer that cannot be extended to third-party developers. Apple’s track record on privacy is generally good; it would be falsely equivalent to compare their requirement of system-forced permission requests with companies like Facebook and Google that inhale user data and spit out creepy advertisements.

“I’m increasingly concerned about the use of privacy as a shield for anti-competitive conduct,” said Rep. David N. Cicilline (R.I.), who serves as chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. “There is a growing risk that without a strong privacy law in the United States, platforms will exploit their role as de facto private regulators by placing a thumb on the scale in their own favor.”

Cicilline is correct: the duty of regulating this stuff should not be passed off to companies motivated less by ethical concerns than revenue.

Twitter Will Delete Accounts on December 11 That Have Not Been Logged Into Within Six Months

Dave Lee, BBC News:

Twitter will begin deleting accounts that have been inactive for more than six months, unless they log in before an 11 December deadline.

The cull will include users who stopped posting to the site because they died — unless someone with that person’s account details is able to log-in.

It is the first time Twitter has removed inactive accounts on such a large scale.

The site said it was because users who do not log-in were unable to agree to its updated privacy policies.

My timeline has been humming today with people excited to claim usernames that will likely be freed up, but it seems as though Twitter has — as ever — failed to fully think through their plans. I imagine there are plenty of people out there who occasionally check in on the Twitter accounts of deceased friends and family; Twitter simply has no solution to preserve those memories.

Jason Scott of the Internet Archive has organized a process to keep a copy of the tweets of dead users.

Update: Twitter has announced that this was only supposed to affect E.U. users, and that they will not begin purging accounts until they figure out memorialization for deceased users’ accounts.

Google’s Taxes

Seth Godin:

The first is the tax we each pay so that companies can bid against each other to buy traffic from Google. Because their revenue model is (cleverly) built on both direct marketing and an auction, they are able to keep a significant portion of the margin from many industries. They’ve become the internet’s landlord.

[…]

The second is harder to see: Because Google has made it ever more difficult for sites to be found, previously successful businesses like Groupon, Travelocity and Hipmunk suffer. As a result, new web companies are significantly harder to fund and build. If you’re dependent on being found in a Google search, it’s probably worth rethinking your plan.

I think there’s a widespread assumption that Google’s search engine is a relatively benevolent and impartial directory of the web at large. The Wall Street Journal’s recent investigation sure makes it sound like that’s the expectation; the authors seemed surprised by how often the ranking parameters are adjusted so that spam, trash, and marketing pablum doesn’t find its way to the top — albeit twisting their findings to imply that Google is pushing a political agenda. There simply isn’t a good way to make search engines truly neutral; that’s fine, but users need to understand that.

Non-Google search engines also need to be more competitive, but it takes time to chip away at a company with complete market share dominance — particularly when they use it as leverage for obtaining an advantage in other markets.

‘5G Has Become a Sort of Magic Pixie Dust’

The Washington Post and New York Times have both now struck deals with cellular providers to hype 5G networking for journalism; neither has explained what, exactly, faster cellular networks will do to make journalism any better — where by “better”, in the case of journalism, I mean “more accurate, situated in context, and comprehensive”.

Here’s what the Times said they’d be using 5G to do in their partnership with Verizon:

The Times has journalists reporting on stories from over 160 countries. Getting their content online often requires high bandwidth and reliable internet connections. At home, too, covering live events means photographers might take thousands of photos without access to a reliable connection to send data back to our media servers. We’re exploring how 5G can help our journalists automatically stream media — HD photos, videos and audio, and even 3D models — back to the Newsroom in real-time, as they are captured.

And here’s the Post announcing their partnership with AT&T:

In addition, as news breaks throughout the country, The Post plans to experiment with reporters using millimeter wave 5G+ technology to transmit their stories, photos and videos faster and more reliably, whether they are covering forest fires on the West Coast or hurricane weather in the southeast.

Most journalism is still text. The Times and Post are absolutely doing wonderful things with video, but most of what they produce is still text, and text doesn’t need speed. I can see how photos and video would get to the newsroom faster, but is the speed of delivery really improving journalism?

I hope that the most time-consuming part of a journalist’s job is and remains in the analysis and research of a story — and having a faster connection does not inherently make someone a better researcher.

Karl Bode, Techdirt:

[…] It’s pretty telling of the era that nobody at either paper thought such a partnership could potentially represent a possible conflict of interest as they cover one of the most heavily hyped tech shifts in telecom history.

I don’t think either publication would jeopardize its integrity to spike stories about its corporate partners. But as antitrust questions increasingly circle tech companies, it is only a matter of time before questions about the lack of competition amongst ISPs and cellular providers cannot be ignored by lawmakers any longer. These are among the most important stories of our time. Should inherently skeptical publications be cozying up to the subjects of their investigations?

‘Visit Eroda’ Is a Tourism Campaign for an Island That Doesn’t Exist

Andy Baio:

Late last week, people on Twitter started noticing sponsored tweets promoting the island of Eroda, linking to a website advertising its picturesque views, marine life, and seaside cuisine.

The only catch? Eroda doesn’t exist. It’s completely fictional. Musician/photographer Austin Strifler was the first to notice, bringing attention to it in a long thread that unraveled over the last few days.

The creators of the Visit Eroda campaign covered their tracks well. According to Baio, they didn’t leave any identifying information in image metadata, domain records, or in the site’s markup.

Ryan J:

I verified a connection between @visiteroda and @Harry_Styles. The Eroda page is using a [Facebook] pixel installed on http://hstyles.co.uk. You can only track websites you have control of. They are related.

I’m not arguing that a promotional campaign for Harry Styles’ new record should be taken as a serious privacy violation; I am, in fact, quite sober. But I think there’s a lesson in the campaign’s difficulty for identifying data to be completely disassociated. A need for behaviourally-targeted advertising is what ultimately made it easy to reassociate the anonymous website.

See also: A 2011 article by Andy Baio in which he describes how he was able to figure out the author of an ostensibly anonymous blog because of a shared Google Analytics account.

The Contract for the Web

Ian Sample, the Guardian

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has launched a global action plan to save the web from political manipulation, fake news, privacy violations and other malign forces that threaten to plunge the world into a “digital dystopia”.

The Contract for the Web requires endorsing governments, companies and individuals to make concrete commitments to protect the web from abuse and ensure it benefits humanity.

The “contract” — a term I use very loosely, as the only punishment for a signatory’s failure to uphold its terms is to be removed from the list of organizations which support it — is endorsed by usual suspects like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and DuckDuckGo. It also counts as supporters Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Two of the nine principles of the Contract for the Web are about respecting users’ privacy in meaningful ways. You do the math.

Matthew Butterick:

So it’s flabbergasting to now see Berners-Lee in the New York Times sidestepping any accountability, and instead promoting himself as the restorer of the web’s virtue. Berners-Lee is pushing what he calls the Contract for the Web, which he describes, with no irony, as a “global plan of action … to make sure our online world is safe, empowering and genuinely for everyone.” He assures us that “the tech giants Google, Facebook, [and] Microsoft” are all “committing to action.” What a relief! Berners-Lee still seems to think Big Tech can do no wrong, even at a time when public and political opinion are going the opposite direction.

I’m not sure I share Butterick’s cynical view of this effort, but I do not see it making a lick of difference in the behaviour or business models of behavioural advertising companies with interactive front-ends.

Also not a good sign: in a random spot-check of a dozen of the companies I didn’t recognize, the website for Trisent was redirecting to some adware garbage, while CKA’s site is entirely in Comic Sans, was last updated in 2010, and displays the referrer in a JavaScript alert.

Personal Records for a Billion Individuals, Collected by People Data Labs and OxyData, Found Freely Available on Web Server

Vinny Troia of Data Viper, a security firm:

On October 16, 2019 Bob Diachenko and Vinny Troia discovered a wide-open Elasticsearch server containing an unprecedented 4 billion user accounts spanning more than 4 terabytes of data.

A total count of unique people across all data sets reached more than 1.2 billion people, making this one of the largest data leaks from a single source organization in history. The leaked data contained names, email addresses, phone numbers, LinkedIN and Facebook profile information.

What makes this data leak unique is that it contains data sets that appear to originate from 2 different data enrichment companies.

Troy Hunt:

It’s entirely possible that this data came from a PDL subscriber and not PDL themselves. Someone left an Elasticsearch instance wide open and by definition, that’s a breach on their behalf and not PDL’s. Yet it doesn’t change the fact that PDL is indicated as the source in the data itself and it definitely doesn’t change the fact that my data (and probably your data too), is available freely to anyone who wishes to query their API. I signed up for a free API key just to see how much they have on me (they’ll give you 1k free API calls a month) and the result was rather staggering.

[…]

And this is the real problem: regardless of how well these data enrichment companies secure their own system, once they pass the data downstream to customers it’s completely out of their control. My data — almost certainly your data too — is replicated, mishandled and exposed and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. Well, almost nothing…

I also signed up for an API key and found records associated with my name and one of my email addresses. Everything in it appears to be scraped from public sources — my name matched outdated LinkedIn data from the time that I thought it was an excellent idea to have a LinkedIn profile, while my email address surfaced a mixed data set.

I am, of course, responsible for putting my information out into the world — if someone can see it, they can copy it. But should they be allowed to store it as long as they like? I deleted my LinkedIn profile years ago, but People Data Labs still has my employment history from there. Furthermore, my email address was not public or visible on any of my social media profiles, but PDL still managed to connect all of them because they used each social media company’s API to scrape user details. I have little recourse in getting rid of PDL’s copy of this information short of contacting them and all other “data enrichment” companies individually to request deletion. That seems entirely wrong.

Internet Society Sells Non-Profit .Org Domain Registry to Private Equity Company

Kieren McCarthy, the Register:

At the end of last week, the Internet Society (ISOC) announced that it has sold the rights to the .org registry for an undisclosed sum to a private equity company called Ethos Capital. The deal is set to complete in the first quarter of next year.

The decision shocked the internet industry, not least because the .org registry has always been operated on a non-profit basis and has actively marketed itself as such. The suffix “org” on an internet address – and there are over 10 million of them – has become synonymous with non-profit organizations.

However, overnight and without warning that situation changed when the registry was sold to a for-profit company. The organization that operates the .org registry, PIR – which stands for Public Interest Registry – has confirmed it will discard the non-profit status it has held since 2003 as a result of the sale.

It’s not just a bleak turn of events for millions of charities and non-profit organizations worldwide that are tied to their domains; McCarthy’s investigation found suspicious undercurrents behind the sale. Truly one of the year’s most upsetting stories about the web.

Performance Is an Accessibility Issue

Stephanie Stimac:

After the storm, I was determined to find out why the ‘Report An Outage’ page was so painful to download.

I profiled the PSE Outage page after Addy Osmani tweeted about using the Coverage panel in the DevTools to check how much unused JavaScript was being loaded.

There were 4.6MB of unused code being downloaded on a page whose main and only content, apart from a sign in button, is a form to submit your address.

Paul Boag tweeted an excellent illustration of the benefits of designing for accessibility, dividing their impact into permanent, temporary, and situational occurrences. Performance could easily be on the same list: some people have permanently restricted bandwidth because of where they live or the device they use; temporarily, something like the storm that Stimac faced would impact connectivity; and simply getting in an elevator or being in a crowded city can be situations that impact performance.

Syniverse’s Dominance Over SMS Routing Introduces Single Points of Failure in U.S. Telecom Infrastructure

Jacob Kastrenakes, the Verge:

On November 7th, tens of thousands of people across the US woke up to strange text messages from friends and loved ones, occasionally from people who were no longer in their lives, like an ex-boyfriend or a best friend who had recently died. The messages had actually been sent months earlier, on Valentine’s Day, but had been frozen in place by a glitched server and were only shot out when the system was finally fixed nine months later, in the middle of the night.

[…]

AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint currently use Syniverse to route text messages to people on other networks, according to data available to Tyntec, a smaller messaging services company that spoke with The Verge. T-Mobile confirmed that it uses Syniverse, AT&T declined to comment, and Sprint did not respond to a request for comment. Verizon confirmed that it uses a competitor, SAP.

[…]

But for years, industry figures have been sounding the alarm about just such a scenario. The very same Valentine’s Day that the SMS server froze up, a mobile services executive named Thorsten Trapp had flown into Washington to warn lawmakers about Syniverse’s dominance in messaging and other carrier services. He came armed with a series of slide decks laying out Syniverse’s dominance in SMS and MMS messaging, as well as in providing critical services for 2G, 3G, and roaming.

“This thing is monopolized. You have literally only one provider who makes sense in the messaging world,” says Trapp, the chief technology officer of Tyntec. “No innovation, no nothing.” His company is currently suing Syniverse for alleged anticompetitive behavior.

Imagine a parallel universe where antitrust law still had teeth.

Bloomberg: Development Process Changes at Apple Seek to Reduce Bugs in Future Software Releases

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. is overhauling how it tests software after a swarm of bugs marred the latest iPhone and iPad operating systems, according to people familiar with the shift.

Software chief Craig Federighi and lieutenants including Stacey Lysik announced the changes at a recent internal “kickoff” meeting with the company’s software developers. The new approach calls for Apple’s development teams to ensure that test versions, known as “daily builds,” of future software updates disable unfinished or buggy features by default. Testers will then have the option to selectively enable those features, via a new internal process and settings menu dubbed Flags, allowing them to isolate the impact of each individual addition on the system.

The news in this story is not that Apple has added a system to hide unfinished changes and new features. Such a process is already in place; that’s how they try to prevent unannounced stuff from showing up in external builds. Nor is it particularly newsworthy that Apple is working on iOS 14. Gurman provides no details about the release, other than writing that it will “rival iOS 13 in the breadth of its new capabilities”, despite the HTML page title implying that the article describes iOS 14 features.

The news seems to be entirely contained in this sentence:

The new approach calls for Apple’s development teams to ensure that test versions, known as “daily builds,” of future software updates disable unfinished or buggy features by default.

From the outside, this feels like something of a rehash of the internal meeting after iOS 11’s similarly buggy release. Federighi announced that the company was pushing features scheduled for iOS 12 into the following year so that there would be a renewed focus on quality. It’s worrying that this is an issue that needs to be emphasized again, and so soon.

Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel, and Donald Trump Dined Together Last Month

Tim Cook isn’t the only tech CEO making friends with the big wet President. But if I were on the same short list as Mark Zuckerberg, I may want to take that as a clue to reconsider my stance.

Also reportedly dining with Zuckerberg and the President was Peter Thiel, a man who once said that he “no longer [believes] that freedom and democracy are compatible”.

Update: For clarification, I understand that working dinners with the President are fairly common for CEOs and other prominent business leaders. They are obviously valuable for in-person lobbying, but I think they create an uncomfortable compromise. The less-formal and cozier setting is unbecoming of CEOs who wish to distance themselves from a discriminatory President.

Tim Cook, Donald Trump, and U.S. Administration Officials Tour Contract Manufacturing Plant in Texas

Jack Nicas of the New York Times on Twitter:

President Trump just toured a Texas plant that has been making Apple computers since 2013 and took credit for it, suggesting the plant opened today. “Today is a very special day.”

Tim Cook spoke immediately after him and did not correct the record.

The President later made the same claim on Twitter, taking credit for “[bringing] high paying jobs back to America”, which is a lie. It is a manufacturing facility that has been producing the same low-volume product for the past six years. I wish Cook had corrected him, and also defended reporters subjected to the President’s abuse since Apple now runs a news subscription business.

Kif Leswing, CNBC:

The plant toured on Wednesday, operated by Flex, assembles the Mac Pro, a high-end computer that starts at $6,000. A previous model of the computer was made in the same facility starting in 2013. Apple doesn’t own or operate its own manufacturing and instead contracts with companies like Flex. A Flex spokesperson declined to comment.

This isn’t the first time the big wet President said some bullshit about Apple manufacturing products in the United States. In 2017, he claimed that Apple would open “three big plants, beautiful plants” in the U.S., because he doesn’t know how to match adjectives and nouns. While Apple has invested in American manufacturing, they have not built three factories in the U.S., not even small and ugly ones.

Killing Net Neutrality Was Even Worse Than You Think

Karl Bode, writing for OneZero:

The FCC’s Orwellian-named “Restoring Internet Freedom” order certainly did kill rules preventing internet service providers (ISPs) from abusing their broadband monopolies to harm competitors and consumers. And it did so in a flurry of controversy and fraud, all while ignoring the opinions of a bipartisan majority of Americans who wanted to keep net neutrality in place.

But the industry-backed repeal quietly had a much broader objective: It all-but obliterated the FCC’s authority to hold ISPs accountable for any number of other bad behaviors. Instead, it dumped most telecom oversight on a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that experts say lacks the resources or authority to police the sector and punish bad behavior.

“The fight over net neutrality has always been about gutting the FCC’s legal authority to protect consumers and promote competition,” said Gigi Sohn, a former FCC lawyer and advisor who helped craft the agency’s original 2015 net neutrality rules.

If there is any consistent theme to this administration and its agencies, it is that they are being plundered for personal gain while being dismantled from the inside, with obviously devastating consequences that will only fully be realized in the years to come.

Please Stop Plopping Big Screens in the Middle of Car Dashboards

Sean O’Kane, the Verge:

Ford’s newly revealed electric Mustang SUV, the Mach-E, is quickly becoming one of the more buzzed-about car reveals of the last few years. But while the new EV looked competent at its LA Auto Show debut, the company pretty much whiffed on one really important part of the Mustang Mach-E: the software.

The performance and practicality of the Mustang Mach-E will be big determinants of its success, but the new Sync 4 software that will power the giant 15.5-inch touchscreen at the center of the dashboard will have a major impact on day-to-day life inside this car. That’s why it was disappointing that Ford didn’t offer much of a chance to interact with the software, and in some cases was actively discouraging people from trying to use it.

That’s pretty embarrassing, but so is the Mach-E’s approach to automotive interior design. Just go look at the pictures: there’s a big 15-inch laptop screen just sort of screwed into the dash. It’s not just Ford, either; Volkswagen’s otherwise nice-looking electric wagon concept has the same problem. I’d think it was case of these companies aping Tesla, but new cars from Mercedes-Benz, Mazda, and Hyundai — among many others — also have poorly-integrated screens of various sizes. The Mercedes and Volkswagen examples are particularly ridiculous — the integration of the display in the E-Class is fine, and the screen in our Golf sits perfectly in the centre console.

This is just lazy.

U.S. Department of Justice Seeks to End Anti-Monopoly Laws Regulating Film Distribution

Alex Weprin, the Hollywood Reporter:

In a speech Monday to the American Bar Association, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim said that the DOJ’s Antitrust Division is moving to terminate the decrees, “except for a two-year sunset period on the bans on block booking and circuit dealing.” The sunset period is designed to allow the movie studios and theater chains time to adjust to the change. The DOJ will require court approval to terminate the Consent Decrees.

“We have determined that the decrees, as they are, no longer serve the public interest, because the horizontal conspiracy — the original violation animating the decrees — has been stopped,” said Delrahim.

Translation: because the policy has worked for a very long time, it’s time to get rid of it. What kind of logical catastrophe could possibly encourage such a categorically stupid position?

The DOJ antitrust division announced in August 2018 that it would be reviewing the Paramount Decrees, which were created after the 1948 Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Paramount Pictures. The major film studios at the time essentially controlled all aspects of filmmaking, from the talent to the productions to the theaters. The Supreme Court ruling and the Consent Decrees have been in force, with no sunset period, ever since.

It’s pretty wild how easily the ISPs that have become multimedia conglomerates are escaping investigation into possible antitrust violations. While the DOJ is looking into big tech companies, it is simultaneously eager to allow increasing dominance by Disney as well as telecom companies that own movie studios. Hanlon’s razor is getting duller by the day.

The Wall Street Journal Bungled Its Investigation Into Google’s Search Engine

Kirsten Grind, Sam Schechner, Robert McMillan, and John West, Wall Street Journal:

Twenty years ago, Google founders began building a goliath on the premise that its search algorithms could do a better job combing the web for useful information than humans. Google executives have said repeatedly—in private meetings with outside groups and in congressional testimony—that the algorithms are objective and essentially autonomous, unsullied by human biases or business considerations.

The company states in a Google blog, “We do not use human curation to collect or arrange the results on a page.” It says it can’t divulge details about how the algorithms work because the company is involved in a long-running and high-stakes battle with those who want to profit by gaming the system.

But that message often clashes with what happens behind the scenes. Over time, Google has increasingly re-engineered and interfered with search results to a far greater degree than the company and its executives have acknowledged, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.

Instead of blockbuster findings of manual intervention that favour specific viewpoints or political parties, though, it seems that the Journal completely botched this report.

Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land (via Michael Tsai):

The truth is, I spoke to a number of these Wall Street Journal reporters back in both March and April about this topic, and it was clear then that they had little knowledge about how search worked. Even a basic understanding of the difference between organic listings (the free search results) and the paid listings (the ads in the search results) eluded them. They seemed to have one goal: to come up with a sensational story about how Google is abusing its power and responsibility for self gain.

Google is not certainly perfect, but almost everything in the Wall Street Journal report is incorrect. I’ll go through many of the points below.

I think Schwartz’s piece says almost everything that needs to be explained about how badly the Journal got this one wrong, but I’ll add two additional observations:

  • The Journal has a neat feature where you can pick from the search queries they tested and compare Google’s results against those of Duck Duck Go and Bing. I like and use Duck Duck Go regularly, but it’s clear that Google’s results are often stronger for more vague search queries.

    For example, a Google search for Elizabeth Warren always resulted in links to Warren’s campaign website, her Wikipedia page, and her U.S. Senate page — note that the Journal does not preserve rankings but, instead, lists pages based on how often they appeared in results. However, the same query in Duck Duck Go returned different results: while her campaign website and U.S. Senate age also appeared 100% of the time, so, too, did her shop, plus a page on a website called “Married Wiki” which has the title “Elizabeth Warren wiki, affair, married, Lesbian with age”. This page of questionable reliability only appeared in 58% of the Journal’s tests when they tried with Bing, and none for Google.

    More shocking and egregious is the way Duck Duck Go and Bing handle the query How do I kill myself: both almost entirely list results that answer the question directly. That’s logical from a purely technical perspective, but it’s callous and uncaring compared to Google’s choice to show suicide prevention resources, including placing the National Suicide Prevention Line’s phone number (1-800-273-8255) in an information box above all other links.

  • The Journal cannot seem to decide how to frame this story — they frequently hint towards corporate malfeasance, partisanship, and underhandedness, but they never quite stick the landing and fall back on ways in which they simplified public statements to officials who lack any and all understanding of tech companies.

    Part of this mongering is a result of speculation about Google’s ranking methodology, as the company deliberately keeps that a secret. Part of it is lack of understanding. And part of it is that there are people out there who are simply too drunk with ideological rage to see that the Gateway Pundit is not a reliable news source; it is completely legitimate for fiction to rank poorly in search queries related to current events.

Why Criticize Apple for Nonsense When You Could Instead Criticize the Things It Has Actually Done?

The Macalope:

One of the things that frustrates The Macalope is that pundits spend way too much time criticizing Apple for nothingburgers. Have you heard of these nothingburgers? The burgers, they make them from nothing these days.

Often Apple is criticized for things it hasn’t even done. Just one example: this summer saw the Forbes contributor network and exclusive distributors of the Impossible Nothing Burger spend months telling us how ugly the iPhone 11 Pro would be. It wasn’t. But they are glibly on to the next thing.

Why would you do that when there are actual things to criticize Apple for?

Some tech pundits have spent their careers spinning fault from Apple’s decisions regardless of their merit. So, when there are actual things to criticize about the company, those commentators have nowhere to go — they’ve used up all their adjectives. False equivalency and crying wolf go hand-in-hand.

Oh, Please, Not This Nonsense iPad vs. PC Story Again

Chris Matyszczyk, writing for ZDNet — a website that thinks so little about its readers that it runs two autoplaying video ads on every page, covers stories in multiple modal sheets asking for your email address or whatever, and begs you to turn on notifications — says that “Apple finally admits iPad Pro won’t replace your PC”.

Surprised? Me too; that surely does not sound like something Apple would say, especially after, as Matyszczyk recounts, the company has spent years saying the opposite:

Two years ago, Apple presented an ad in which a young woman, devoted to her iPad Pro, claimed not to even know what a computer was.

In case you’re wondering: yes, Matyszczyk will liberally be linking to himself writing several iterations of this argument in previous unsubstantial articles.

The year before, the company insisted iPad Pro was a computer and appealed to users to merely imagine what that computer could do. Microsoft burst out laughing. Yes, publicly.

It sure is embarrassing when Microsoft executives are laughing in public about their competitors’ products.

Apple was undeterred. Last year, it presented five reasons why iPad Pro is a computer. One of which was that, oh, it has that indispensable computer element: a pencil.

Another was that it “goes anywhere.” Because your MacBook Air simply refuses to fly United Airlines.

Matyszczyk is so lazy, he even copied his joke from last year:

Unlike your laptop, which, I assume, insists on flying First Class or it’s not going to get on that darned plane with you. Not even for Thanksgiving.

Nailed it. I mean, it isn’t quite as punchy as the ad embedded immediately above this very sick burn wherein the iPad is implied being used in the middle of a forest because it’s connected over LTE and has really long battery life, but still: nailed it.

Anyway, Matyszczyk meanders through his alternate history of Apple’s iPad marketing before arriving at his thesis:

The company’s senior vice-president of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller, can reach for haughtiness on occasion, such as when he insisted that if your kids use Chromebooks they’ll fail at school.

However, in the same interview, he offered CNET these life-affirming words: “We believe the best personal computer is a Mac, and we want to keep going down that path. And we think the best tablet computing device is an iPad, and we’ll go down that path.”

And into these two generalized sentences Matyszczyk has somehow read that Apple will no longer say that the iPad could conceivably replace a PC for many tasks. Think that’s something of a leap? Not as much of a leap as the way Matyszczyk has skillfully excised that quote from its original context:

Roger Cheng: Today’s news is all about the MacBook Pro 16 and Mac Pro, but where does the iPad Pro fit in this pro lineup?

Phil Schiller: We look at these things a bit independently. […]

So now there are a lot of cases where people will use iPad, especially with Pencil, as an artist-creation tool or as a field-compute tool. What we find is there’s a fair number of people who actually spend more of their compute time on their iPad than personal computer. They didn’t choose one or the other. That’s just where they spent a lot of their time.

What the team has done is try to find ways that the two can work together, where one plus one equals three instead of two. We’ve created technologies like Sidecar that allow your iPad to work alongside your Mac, and that you do use the Pencil on Mac applications. The idea of a second display on the road, that’s flexible enough when you travel, is a really cool solution for pro users. And so that fills a need…no one’s ever done that before.

We allow customers to decide which one they want to spend more time on and then we try to find ways they work together if you happen to have both.

Cheng: You don’t envision a future where they merge?

Schiller: No, that’s not our view. Because then you get this in-between thing, and in-between things are never as good as the individual things themselves. We believe the best personal computer is a Mac, and we want to keep going down that path. And we think the best tablet computing device is an iPad, and we’ll go down that path.

iPad benefits because we assume that you need to be able to do most everything with touch, and we don’t have to trade off on that experience. Mac assumes you want to do most everything with a keyboard and mouse input. We don’t have to trade off on that path. You can look at some of the other products that will try to go halfway between the two. They end up just compromising experiences. That’s not good.

Schiller was responding to a question that Apple has been asked since they launched the first iPad with an answer that has remained effectively unchanged in that time. Besides, if Apple were really pulling back on their messaging of the iPad as a computer, don’t you think they’d update the second slide of their terrible iPad Pro marketing page?

Matyszczyk continues:

What lifts my soul, however, is that Schiller has finally conceded that there’s more than one way of being productive.

Schiller has made this argument several times previously, most notably in what Philip Elmer-DeWitt calls his “grand unifying theory” of Apple:

As a rule, Philip Schiller told Backchannel’s Steven Levy, you should be using the smallest possible device to do as much work as possible, before going to the next largest gadget in line.

And then Matyszczyk gets weird:

Indeed, he appeared to concede that typing on an iPad Pro is as elegant as rushing to your lover’s house on a Segway.

An analogy that paints quite the vivid picture, if I do say so myself.

So now I can open my iPad Pro and watch obscure foreign TV series — have you seen Norway’s “Unge Lovende”? It’s really quite good — without deep injections of guilt searing through my sinews.

The metaphor farm is closed for the season; all that’s left are these scraps.

I truly am looking forward to hearing the continued adventures of the Segway-using lover in Matyszczyk’s next piece about Apple’s continuing references to the iPad as a computer, which I assume will drop days-to-weeks following the release of a new iPad. He gets paid to write this stuff, you know.

The FCC Is Working on a Replacement for Its Terrible Electronic Comment Filing System

Dell Cameron, Gizmodo:

The Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS), first launched in 1998, allows anyone to contribute input about proposed FCC rules when subject to its notice-and-comment rulemaking process. Originally, the ECFS was used primarily by industry stakeholders and telecom attorneys trying to sway FCC policymakers via written legal argument. More recently, the public at large has become aware of the system through the massive grassroots campaigns surrounding the FCC’s net neutrality proceedings.

Leaked to Gizmodo, an email by an FCC official dated this week encourages those “who comment frequently at the FCC” to attend roundtable discussions held on Tuesday and Wednesday this week regarding the creation of the new system. Two sources familiar with internal FCC correspondence regarding the ECFS confirmed its authenticity with Gizmodo.

Good start. But will the FCC actually pay attention to the system that replaces it? Or will they continue to insist that it’s just a place for the public to vent unless they’re legally trained and willing to write policy?

Google Expands Its Reach Into Fitness, Health, and Finance, but Pinky Promises With a Cherry on Top That It Won’t Use This Data for Advertising

I present a remarkable triptych of stories from the past week or so, beginning with Peter Rudegeair and Liz Hoffman of the Wall Street Journal:1

Google will soon offer checking accounts to consumers, becoming the latest Silicon Valley heavyweight to push into finance.

The project, code-named Cache, is expected to launch next year with accounts run by Citigroup Inc. and a credit union at Stanford University, a tiny lender in Google’s backyard.

[…]

[Google executive Caesar Sengupta] said Google wanted to bring value to consumers, banks and merchants, with services that could include loyalty programs, but it wouldn’t sell checking-account users’ financial data. The company said it doesn’t use Google Pay data for advertising purposes and doesn’t share that data with advertisers.

Beth Mole, Ars Technica:

Google quietly partnered last year with Ascension—the country’s second-largest health system—and has since gained access to detailed medical records on tens of millions of Americans, according to a November 11 report by The Wall Street Journal.

The endeavor, code-named “Project Nightingale,” has enabled at least 150 Google employees to see patient health information, which includes diagnoses, laboratory test results, hospitalization records, and other data, according to internal documents and the newspaper’s sources. In all, the data amounts to complete medical records, WSJ notes, and contains patient names and birth dates.

Google issued a statement reassuring those concerned that patient data is encrypted, siloed, kept private in accordance with HIPAA rules, and won’t be combined with Google’s own user data.

Shirin Ghaffary and Rani Molla, Vox:

Google’s parent company Alphabet announced Friday that it is acquiring wearable smartwatch maker Fitbit for $2.1 billion, marking the search giant’s latest push into the health market.

Google’s acquisition raises concerns about data privacy for Fitbit users. Google says Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads, but it did not specify where else in its empire it might use that data. The acquisition also gives more fodder to regulators who are already scrutinizing whether the company is too big and should be broken up.

There’s a common thread here: Google is acquiring massive amounts of deeply personal information, but it insists that you can trust it — the company promises that it won’t use this data for advertising purposes nor will it mix it with behavioural data it has collected about you.

And you know what? I believe Google when it says that it won’t do that right now — I really do. But will it uphold the same promise in five years, or ten? Will it keep the same promise if new legislation comes into effect that would make it harder to collect new behavioural data? Will Google maintain the same stance if it becomes financially stressed, or if a creepier person takes the CEO chair, or if it becomes otherwise compelled to strip mine users’ personal data on every level? I’m much less certain, particularly as less than eight years ago it consolidated all user information under a single privacy policy. Why wouldn’t Google do the same thing again? What’s stopping it?

Even if you believe that this collection of highly personal information is kept perpetually secret, why is it the case that companies that have a primary business of behavioural data mining are able to dabble in industries that necessarily require a privacy firewall? I think of this in much the same way that financial institutions in the United States were once prohibited from being in consumer businesses and investment banking under Glass–Steagall. As the housing market collapsed in 2007, the devastating loss to Americans was exacerbated by Glass–Steagall’s repeal just eight years prior.

Why risk a privacy catastrophe?


  1. My collection of links here is primarily about Google’s continuously-expanding reach over huge amounts of data, but I think the third paragraph of this Journal article is misleading:

    Big tech companies see financial services as a way to get closer to users and glean valuable data. Apple Inc. introduced a credit card this summer. Amazon.com Inc. has talked to banks about offering checking accounts. Facebook Inc. is working on a digital currency it hopes will upend global payments.

    Rudegeair and Hoffman falsely equate Apple’s credit card with Facebook and Google’s data acquisition efforts in finance. The Apple Card is explicitly pitched a privacy-focused credit card: “Apple does not know where a customer shopped, what they bought or how much they paid”. ↩︎

Disney Plus Crops the 4:3 Aspect Ratio of Classic Episodes of the Simpsons to 16:9, Thereby Ruining Them

Matthew Gault, Vice:

Unfortunately, Disney fucked it up, and The Simpsons I knew from my childhood isn’t the The Simpsons that Disney+ is showing. The classic episodes originally aired in a 4:3 format, which fit televisions in the pre-HD era. Disney+ is showing reformatted HD episodes in a widescreen 16:9 ratio. The images fill up a modern TV screen, but they’re cropped and stretched. As fans have noticed, the crop can cut sight gags from the Disney+ release.

For example, the Duff Brewery gag about all Duff being the same is completely lost in the crop. Besides missing gags, the crop is generally annoying and bad. When I watched “Marge Versus the Monorail,” for example, Lyle Lanley sang about the a town with money in extreme close up. Characters’ faces are often as stretched and distorted as Marge’s smeared face on a novelty T-Shirt.

Legal, full-quality access to episodes of the Simpsons is pretty much the only reason I was thinking about getting a Disney Plus subscription, so this is hugely disappointing.

Apple Introduces a 16-Inch MacBook Pro With a New Keyboard

Apple:

Featuring a new Magic Keyboard with a redesigned scissor mechanism and 1mm travel for a more satisfying key feel, the 16-inch MacBook Pro delivers the best typing experience ever in a Mac notebook. The 16-inch MacBook Pro also includes a six-speaker sound system, longer battery life, Touch Bar, Touch ID, the Force Touch trackpad and the Apple T2 Security Chip.

“Our pro customers tell us they want their next MacBook Pro to have a larger display, blazing-fast performance, the biggest battery possible, the best notebook keyboard ever, awesome speakers and massive amounts of storage, and the 16-inch MacBook Pro delivers all of that and more,” said Tom Boger, Apple’s senior director of Mac and iPad Product Marketing. “With its brilliant 16-inch Retina display, 8-core processors, next-gen pro graphics, even better thermal design, new Magic Keyboard, six-speaker sound system, 100Wh battery, up to 8TB of storage and 64GB of fast memory, the 16-inch MacBook Pro is the world’s best pro notebook.”

The battery is the maximum capacity that the FAA allows, and it has accordingly pushed up the weight of this MacBook Pro by 170 grams compared to the 2019 15-inch model. It’s now more-or-less the same size as the 2015 pre-Touch Bar 15-inch model.

Also of note is the new display, which is not just the old display cut slightly larger: its pixel density is greater than the 15-inch; it’s equivalent to the density of the 12-inch MacBook that Apple discontinued earlier this year. Because this 16-inch configuration replaces the 15-inch model, this is the first time since January 2001 that Apple has not offered a new 15-inch laptop.

And then there’s the new keyboard.

Roger Cheng of CNet interviewed Phil Schiller — these are Schiller’s words:

As you know, a number of years ago we started a new keyboard technology with this butterfly keyboard and began it with MacBook. It had some things it did really well, like creating a much more stable key platform. It felt more firm and flat under your finger — some people really like that, but other people weren’t really happy with that. We got sort of a mixed reaction. We had some quality issues we had to work on. Over the years we’ve been refining that keyboard design, and we’re now on the third generation, and a lot of people are much happier with that as we’ve advanced and advanced it.

But a few years back, we decided that while we were advancing the butterfly keyboard, we would also — specifically for our pro customer — go back and really talk to many pro customers about what they most want in a keyboard and did a bunch of research. That’s been a really impressive project, the way the engineering team has gotten into the physiology of typing and the psychology of typing — what people love.

As we started to investigate specifically what pro users most wanted, a lot of times they would say, “I want something like this Magic Keyboard, I love that keyboard.” And so the team has been working on this idea of taking that core technology and adapting it to the notebook, which is a different implementation than the desktop keyboard, and that’s what we’ve come up with [for] this new keyboard. We’re doing both in advancing the butterfly keyboard, and we’re creating this new Magic Keyboard for our Pro notebooks.

Nilay Patel:

Apple’s marketing spin on these new MacBook Pros is all about “listening to “customers,” but it’s pretty important to note that @caseyjohnston and @joannastern are the actual people who highlighted the problems with the previous keyboards over and over again in their reporting.

Marco Arment:

I’m on cloud nine. Look at this glorious keyboard! An Esc key! Inverted-T arrow keys! A millimeter of key travel! Enough spacing between the keys for our fingers to accurately orient themselves! And keystrokes will probably work, 100% of the time, for years!

Five years ago, nobody would’ve considered any of these noteworthy, and readers would’ve suspected you weren’t of sound mind if you included them in a review.

Five years ago, laptop keyboards were fine. Everyone was pretty much satisfied with the ones they had, they worked, and we never had to talk or think about them.

Today, finally, we begin heading back to that world.

There are two key words in that last sentence: “begin” and “finally”. Apple has not announced new models of the MacBook Air or 13-inch MacBook Pro, both of which still ship today with an unreliable keyboard, so this absolutely is just a first step. There’s also an open class action suit in California concerning the keyboards in Apple’s laptops from 2015 through this year, and that highlights the “finally” aspect of this improved keyboard. Having a reliable input system is basically the ground floor in computer hardware, and it’s absurd that this design was able to ship at all, let alone across three product lines for four years.

Alas, here we are: Apple has discoveryd’d the problematic butterfly keyboard in favour of a scissor switch design based on the Magic Keyboard. By all accounts I’ve read today, this is entirely the correct decision. If it feels like the Magic Keyboard I have on my desk and it’s similarly reliable, I can’t imagine a better keyboard in a laptop.1 Of course, whether these changes improve long-term reliability is something that will reveal itself after months of real-world exposure. There’s also a separate Touch ID key — like on the MacBook Air — and a physical escape key, with the unchanged (apart from in size) Touch Bar nestled in between.

There’s a lot to love about this new model: apparently, the speakers and mic are surprisingly great, and you can run two of Apple’s forthcoming Pro Display XDRs off one of this things, which is nuts. Apple doesn’t say, but I assume that last supporting two external 6K displays requires the highest-end graphics card, which is a reasonably-priced $200 configuration option.

There seem to be very few negatives to this MacBook Pro model. The still-absent SD card slot and the lack of port variety are probably its biggest knocks, but those things are relatively minor quibbles. The crappy keyboards in Apple’s laptop lineup was a primary reason I bought an iMac in January, and I’m glad I did, but this update shows that Apple is listening and will throw away stuff that doesn’t work. I just wish they’d done so sooner.


  1. And speaking of the Magic Keyboard, if that gets updated with an inverted-T arrow key layout, I’d be sorely tempted to buy a new one just for that improvement. ↩︎

John Oliver Takes On SLAPP Suits and Anti-SLAPP Laws

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

Ever since coal boss Bob Murray threatened and then sued John Oliver and HBO over their story mocking his supposed concern for coal miners, I’ve been publicly (and possibly privately*) bugging Oliver and his team at HBO to do an episode specifically about SLAPP lawsuits and anti-SLAPP laws. And I’m happy to say that they listened! This past Sunday, Oliver’s big story was all about SLAPP suits and anti-SLAPP laws, and focused again on Bob Murray, who finally dropped his case against Oliver and HBO earlier this year. It is well worth watching all the way up until the end.

I had no idea where this episode was going when I sat down to watch it Sunday, but it exceeded every possible expectation I had. I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it; Masnick embedded a U.S.-only clip of the entire segment, and it is absolutely worth twenty-five minutes of your day.

Anti-SLAPP laws are hugely important. A couple of years ago, a guy who invented an application called “Email” back in the late 1970s sued Techdirt and Gawker separately for pointing out that he cannot really claim to be the “inventor of email”. I wrote about this a few times here because it so beguiled me. Every time I hit “publish”, though, there was a small twinge of worry about whether I, too, could face a lawsuit for simply pointing out the facts. As Oliver points out, the plaintiff does not need to win the suit for it to effectively silence the defendant. And, obviously, I’m not big-headed enough to think that I would actually be a target.

But that momentary worry was effective in making me doubt whether I could publish factual, well-cited information that countered a hyperlitigant’s misleading narrative. Even if I was completely okay from a legal perspective, it could cost me a fortune.

See Also: Libby Hill in IndieWire.

Investigation Launched Into Goldman Sachs After David Heinemeier Hansson Tweets About Discrepancies in Apple Card Credit Limit Between Himself and His Wife

David Heinemeier Hansson:

The [Apple Card] is such a fucking sexist program. My wife and I filed joint tax returns, live in a community-property state, and have been married for a long time. Yet Apple’s black box algorithm thinks I deserve 20x the credit limit she does. No appeals work.

Sridhar Natarajan and Shahien Nasiripour, Bloomberg:

A Wall Street regulator is opening a probe into Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s credit card practices after a viral tweet from a tech entrepreneur alleged gender discrimination in the new Apple Card’s algorithms when determining credit limits.

[…]

“The department will be conducting an investigation to determine whether New York law was violated and ensure all consumers are treated equally regardless of sex,” said a spokesman for Linda Lacewell, the superintendent of the New York Department of Financial Services. “Any algorithm, that intentionally or not results in discriminatory treatment of women or any other protected class of people violates New York law.”

As Maciej Cegłowski put it in 2016, “machine learning is like money laundering for bias”. Goldman Sachs’ algorithm may be the culprit here, but Apple’s logo is on the card.

Update: Goldman Sachs has issued a statement.

Owen Williams Rounds Up

Hey, remember how a change was made to more accurately scan private API use for Mac App Store apps, and it caused Electron apps to be rejected because they rely upon Chromium? And even though these apps are still available for the Mac, they’re just not in the Mac App Store until the Electron project excludes said private APIs?

In Owen Williams’ eyes, this is nothing less than Apple “trying to kill web technology”. That’s right: Apple is trying to kill the web on all of its platforms, starting with the Mac:

But Apple has a reason not to like this recycling of web technology. It wants its Mac App Store to be filled with apps that you can’t find anywhere else, not apps that are available on every platform.

That’s why they’ve been so hesitant to promote cross-platform apps like those in the Microsoft Office and the Adobe suites, going so far as to only give them a few minutes of keynote time and publishing their press releases.

Electron has used these private APIs for years without issue. These private APIs allow developers to, for instance, drastically improve power usage whereas Apple’s sanctioned tools make the user experience worse. In the majority of these cases, Apple doesn’t provide real alternatives for developers who want to access these private API features.

Are private APIs unfair? Almost inherently so. Should the use of any API be withheld from distributed software until a public API is available for third-party developer use? That’s debatable.

But, again, Apple is not prohibiting the use of private APIs generally; they just don’t want apps in the Mac App Store that use private APIs. That’s a big difference.

Also, for what it’s worth, the Mozilla post that Williams links to doesn’t actually say that they’re using any restricted or private APIs, just that they updated Firefox to use Core Animation to improve its battery life and performance on MacOS.

Developers could distribute their apps from their own websites, asking users to download them directly. But that means abandoning features like Apple’s auto-update mechanism from the Mac App Store and iCloud sync. And this direct-to-consumer method could soon be locked down, too, with Apple’s controversial notarization requirements potentially requiring their review.

Setting aside the ability to use iCloud syncing in apps not distributed through the Mac App Store, notarization does not equate to locking down MacOS to outside distribution, despite Williams’ scaremongering. I have problems with notarization and Apple’s strategy for MacOS security, but Williams’ interpretation is overly simplistic and dependent on fear.

Williams follows with a couple of examples of how Apple does not implement new web standards as quickly as other browser makers do, and that leads him to this thesis:

Apple’s subtle, anti-competitive practices don’t look terrible in isolation, but together they form a clear strategy: Make it so painful to build with web-based technology on Apple platforms that developers won’t bother.

First, the premise of this argument isn’t a secret, nor is it new. Apple has long said that apps which are basically wrappers around websites should just be websites — most recently in September.

Second, Apple continues to develop and improve upon in-app web functionality, including fixing things like lacklustre WebRTC support in third-party apps, something Williams complains about in his post.

Third, encouraging a distinction between apps and websites does not therefore lead to the headline “Apple Is Trying to Kill Web Technology”. That’s rounding up to the nearest crisis position, and is wildly misleading. Plenty of ostensibly native apps continue to use web technologies — even many of Apple’s.

Apple has done a lot of stupid and controlling things in the moderation of their App Stores, but this isn’t one of those instances, and it certainly does not produce the panic-inducing headline of Williams’ post.

An Oral History of Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angeles

Recognizing that this month marks the time in which 1982’s Blade Runner was supposed to take place, Mike Roe of LAist interviewed many of those responsible for designing and building what was then a vision of the future. Art director David Snyder:

This is the first film that Ridley did in Hollywood, L.A. So he had this idea, the most brilliant idea of all: we would go night-scouting in downtown L.A., which was really treacherous, really tough.

And so, Ridley said, “Look — there’s 1920 on this building, and then they put a layer of 1940 on the building, and then they put a layer of 1960 on the building,” and it was a stratification thing.

So when it was decided that we were going to shoot on the Warner Brothers backlot — the buildings that were built on the backlot started in 1924. And then went through all those periods, from 1924 to 1980.

When we were in pre-production, Ridley took us into the screening room and we ran the film Logan’s Run. And at the end of the film, he said, “Do you see that? We don’t want to do any of that, at all. This is exactly what we don’t want to do — the Earth is leveled, and you start over again.”

Blade Runner and its sequel remain two of my all-time favourite films — the latter surprising me by just how good it was. While towers might not be as tall as the film predicted and we’re not all travelling through the air in Spinners, it holds up remarkably well: we are in an age of bleak climate crises, aggressive policing, and unthinkable technological advances.

iOS 13.2.2, Out Now, Fixes That Bad Multitasking Bug

This is a relatively quick fix for such a nasty bug, though I still can’t believe why it shipped in the first place. The first beta of iOS 13.3, released earlier this week, also appears to have fixed this problem.

Update: Can Duruk:

The silver lining here is that Apple now feels comfortable rolling out patches every 2-3 weeks, instead of yearly updates. The organizational change required to get into a cadence like that is very hard. Now, if they could get the updates smaller and faster…

This is true and merits acknowledgement. It is also true that this year’s series of software updates have come fast and furious because that’s what has been required; this has been a truly rocky autumn as far as software quality is concerned. I hope the ability to ship patches faster does not encourage a culture that prioritizes speed over quality, however — as it often has, in my experience, with software-as-a-service companies.

AT&T Adds 15 GB and $10 Per Month to Mobile Share Plans and Doesn’t Allow Customers to Opt-Out of This ‘Bonus’

Sean Hollister, the Verge:

AT&T has a gift for wireless subscribers on many of its old Mobile Share Value data plans: it’s giving them an extra 15GB of “bonus” data — and it’s making them pay an extra $10 a month for that “bonus.”

It’s almost like the company is forcing people to move to a more expensive plan, only AT&T figured out a way to make that not technically true. Instead, it’s worded in a way that suggests the company is providing you with a SURPRISE BENEFIT that costs you money! It is quite literally an offer you can’t refuse.

This comes one day — one day — after AT&T settled with the FTC for $60 million dollars over trying to redefine the word “unlimited” to mean “limited”.

Shaw, my ISP, uses this kind of sleazy tactic all the time. My bill goes up every six months or so, and when I call to negotiate a better rate, the plan I’ve been on somehow no longer exists. I then have the option of one plan that’s more expensive but with a slower connection speed, or another plan that’s much more expensive and has unnecessarily fast speeds.

The bill I received just a couple of days ago indicates that they’ll be raising my bill by a few dollars again come January. I’ve just checked their plans and the pattern has continued — my current 100 Mbps plan is no longer available, but I can either have a 50 Mbps plan for $85 per month, or 300 Mbps for $105. The way I use the internet hasn’t changed a lot in the last five years, but I’m now paying nearly $40 per month more than I used to for the same utility.

Internal Facebook Communications Describe Plan to Limit Data Access to Potential Competitors Under the Guise of User Privacy

Katie Paul and Mark Hosenball, Reuters:

One executive, writing in 2013, described dividing apps into “three buckets: existing competitors, possible future competitors, [or] developers that we have alignment with on business models” as part of the project to restrict access to user data, dubbed ‘PS12N’.

Those in the last category were able to regain access by agreeing to make mobile advertising purchases or provide reciprocal user data to Facebook under “Private Extended API Agreements,” according to the emails.

As thousands of developers lost access to user data, the executives decided to announce the changes publicly. They elected to link what they referred to as the “‘bad stuff’ of PS12N” to an unrelated update of the Facebook login system which gave people greater control over their privacy.

Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar, NBC News:

For example, Facebook gave Amazon special access to user data because it was spending money on Facebook advertising. In another case the messaging app MessageMe was cut off from access to data because it had grown too popular and could compete with Facebook.

Because these are exhibits from just one side of this lawsuit, it’s possible that they do not represent a fuller picture of what Facebook was intending to do. But it is remarkable just how forthcoming Facebook’s staff are about their bald-faced anticompetitive maneuvers. Does it rise to an antitrust court case? I’m not sure; it’s Facebook’s private platform, not an open market. The company seems very happy to walk the line between ruthless and criminal — which, surely, is not an indication of a company behaving ethically and responsibly.

Also, NBC News has inexplicably decided to publish many thousands of pages from hundreds of documents of varying sizes in a single 600 MB PDF.

Unlike Netflix or Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus Can Be a Hobby

Dallas Lawrence, VentureBeat:

For Netflix, the streaming wars are life or death. For Disney, it’s about futureproofing the business and ensuring its incredible IP sustains its value in a changing media ecosystem. For Amazon, it’s about making Prime stickier. For Apple, however, streaming is really more of value add play — a vehicle for the world’s most valuable company to continue its evolution away from a pure hardware company into a services business.

This is a playbook Apple has effectively deployed in the past and one we are already beginning to see take shape as it competes in the streaming landscape. One only needs to look back at the Apple Music launch to understand the strategy. By building an ecosystem for Apple hardware users to seamlessly integrate music into their digital life, Apple managed to overtake Spotify’s subscriber growth in the U.S. and ultimately reach more than 60 million subscribers (and growing) for its music service. According to the most recent quarterly earnings released last week, Apple’s services business alone is growing at more than 20% annually — surpassing $12 billion in the latest quarter.

Just as Jeff Bezos once famously said that every time an Amazon original wins a Golden Globe it helps the company sell more shoes, with Apple News+, Apple Music, Apple Arcade, and now Apple TV+, Apple is building ever deeper connections into every aspect of the consumer content experience that will pay dividends far beyond the streaming wars.

I’m swayed by the argument that an arbitrary hardware-and-services company does not need a movie production business to succeed, but I am not persuaded that this makes sense as Apple’s strategy. The shows that have been released by the company have — “Planet of the Apps” notwithstanding — been greeted by warm but not effusive reviews. They’re fine. Some of them may even be even good.

But Apple doesn’t do fine or even good. They don’t sell Macs because they help maintain a sticky connection to their services; they don’t update the iPhone’s camera every year because they hope you’ll buy more iCloud storage. They’re the best products in their class. Sure — Apple doesn’t sell truly cheap versions of these products, but people are willing to hand over a much larger lump of money to the company with the knowledge that they’re getting a premium product.

Apple TV Plus doesn’t fit that archetype — not yet, anyway. This becomes plain if you compare it to the closest television equivalent to an Apple product that I can think of: HBO — a premium cable channel that features must-watch shows that are defined as much by their quality as their budgets, all without being interrupted by ads. Apple TV Plus is, so far, serving up fine shows with astronomical budgets, all for either a low monthly cost or, if you’ve bought a new Apple product recently, a free year’s trial. Are they going for subscription volume?

Apple TV Plus has just launched, and the app is more of a storefront for more established players in the streaming video market. They can get better at this, and they should. But I want to hear a reason for Apple to be in the streaming business beyond ARPU and subscription stickiness.

FTC Fines AT&T $60 Million for Calling Its Limited Data Plans ‘Unlimited’

Lesley Fair of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission:

Sometimes FTC cases affirm important legal principles in the courtroom. In other cases, we’re able to get money back for consumers injured by a company’s illegal conduct. The FTC’s action against AT&T for allegedly deceptive and unfair practices related to AT&T’s promises of “unlimited data” resulted in a key ruling last year about the FTC’s jurisdiction and will return $60 million to affected consumers.

In 2014 the FTC sued AT&T Mobility, LLC, for failing to adequately disclose to customers on unlimited data plans that if they used a certain amount of data in a billing cycle, AT&T would slow down – or throttle – their data speeds to the point that many everyday smartphone functions (for example, web browsing and video streaming) became nearly impossible. According to the complaint, despite its unequivocal promises of unlimited data, in 2011 AT&T began throttling data speeds for its “unlimited” customers who used a little as 2 gigabytes in a billing period.

Good on the FTC for affirming the basic principle that words do, in fact, have meaning.

Apple TV All the Way Down

Dustin Curtis:

Apple TV is a hardware device.

Apple TV is an app on Apple TV that curates content you can buy from Apple and also content you can stream through other installed apps (but not all apps, and there is no way to tell which ones).

Apple TV is an app on iOS/iPadOS devices that operates similarly to Apple TV on Apple TV. Apple TV on iOS/iPadOS syncs playback and watch history with Apple TV on Apple TV, but only if the iOS/iPadOS device has the same apps installed as the Apple TV – and not all apps are available on all platforms. Apple TV is also an app on macOS, but it does not show content that can only be streamed from external apps on an Apple TV or iOS/iPadOS device.

Curtis missed the Apple TV Remote app which allows you to control your Apple TV Plus show or your Apple TV Channel on your Apple TV hardware device — including the Apple TV software running on the Apple TV device — but not Apple TV software running on non-Apple TV hardware. Got it?

Via Michael Tsai, who also points to a colour-coded version.

David Heinemeier Hansson Gives Windows Another Try After Twenty Years

David Heinemeier Hansson has become exasperated with Apple’s four-year laptop keyboard experiment, so he bought one of Microsoft’s third-generation Surface Laptops. He has many positive things to say about it; for example:

The buying experience was great. There was nobody in the store, so with four sales people just standing around, I got immediate attention, and typed away a few quick sentences on the keyboard. It felt good. Nice travel, slim chassis, sleek design. SOLD!

The initial setup experience was another pleasant surprise. The Cortana-narrated process felt like someone from the Xbox team had done the design. Fresh, modern, fun, and reassuring. Apple could take some notes on that.

I accept that there are tradeoffs between ease of setup and full disclosure of user options — counting the number of screens during setup is one way to visualize this — but I wish some of these screens were consolidated on iOS and MacOS alike.

Also, and I’m not sure if this is just nostalgia, but I miss those first run videos in pre-Lion versions of Mac OS X.

Anyway, there are two things I want to touch on from this review:

But ultimately we got to the meat of this experience, and unfortunately the first bite didn’t quite match the sizzle. The font rendering in Windows remains excruciatingly poor to my eyes. It just looks bad. It reminded me of my number one grief with Android back in the 5.0 or whenever days, before someone at Google decided to do font rendering right (these days it’s great!). Ugh.

I accept that this is a personal failure of sorts. The Windows font rendering does not prevent you from using the device. It’s not like you can’t read the text. It’s just that I don’t enjoy it, and I don’t want to. So that was strike one.

For what it’s worth, I use a Windows 10 computer for eight hours a day, Monday through Friday. Windows has never had nice text rendering. I feel like anyone who thinks the antialiasing used in Windows 10 looks nice should, upon the conclusion of their hopefully long and healthy life, donate their eyes to science for further examination. It is both brittle and coarse, and entirely unsatisfying.

One more thing:

[…] Want to run Docker for Windows on your brand new Surface Laptop 3? Sorry, can’t do that without buying an upgrade to Windows Pro (the $1800 Surface Laptop 3 apparently wasn’t expensive enough to warrant that designation, so it ships with the Home edition. Okay, sheesh).

Microsoft’s continued insistence on shipping myriad editions of Windows with different capabilities will never stop being frustrating to me.

Earlier this year, I was trying to open some Premiere projects created by another person in the office and was prompted to update Creative Cloud. I hit the button and was told that the version of Windows 10 on my machine was too old and needed to be updated first. That surprised me because I knew I had installed an update not too long before, and I’m pretty sure the company’s admin policy mandates system updates anyhow. So I looked up the version I was running to find that it was: a) several years old, and b) was an edition of Windows 10 I’d never heard of called “LTSC”.

It turns out that there are more than just “Home” and “Professional” versions of Windows 10 — there are, like, a dozen. LTSC stands for “Long-Term Servicing Channel”. As far as I can tell, it’s an edition of Windows 10 that’s supposed to be used in instances where it’s critical that no features get updated, but proven security patches are installed, so it’s used in places like digital signage, ATMs, vending machines, and medical applications. And there’s no upgrade path for LTSC to a mainstream version of Windows 10 aside from a clean install.

This is all a very long way of saying that the myriad editions of Windows 10 remain confusing and silly to me.

Apps Built With Electron 6 and 7 Are Currently Being Rejected From the Mac App Store

David Dev” (sic):

Allright, as a follow up to the previous chapter in this odyssey I can now state that, apparently, you cannot submit an electron 6 or 7 app to the apple store:

The first refusal from apple states:

Your app app links against the following non-public framework(s):

CAContext

CALayerHost

NSAccessibilityRemoteUIElement

NSNextStepFrame

NSThemeFrame

NSURLFileTypeMappings

I am not the only one having this issue and I did write back to Apple trying to explain that I am using Electron and I can’t really change any of these public-framework usage (I assume is something from Chromium) […]

I’m seeing a lot of anger directed at Apple over this, including accusations of monopoly practices and allegations that this is some sort of plot to neuter computing except for the ways in which Apple says you can use your Mac. This is ridiculous. These apps are being rejected from the Mac App Store, but can be distributed elsewhere; the Mac is not a closed platform. I get why this is frustrating: the lack of communication by Apple when changes are made to the App Review process may come as a surprise, and Electron is a popular framework upon which entire apps rest, so changing it would require a lot of work.

If anything, though, the main culprit here is whichever part of Electron — either Electron itself, or Chromium, upon which it is based — decided to use private APIs in the app. Apple has been wildly inconsistent with many aspects of its App Stores, but on private APIs the company has stood firm: they may not be used. It would have been useful for Apple to announce this change if it knew the revised App Review process would prevent Electron apps from being accepted into the Mac App Store, but it is by no means a death sentence for these apps, nor is it their responsibility to ensure that every intermediate app layer made by a third-party is compliant.

Update: Michael Tsai:

So there are a multiple problems here:

  1. It’s (apparently) impossible for Chromium to get competitive performance and battery life without using private API, which Safari freely uses.

  2. Apple probably has good reasons for keeping these APIs private.

  3. Private API has always been banned, but Apple has been accepting these apps for years and then abruptly stopped without any notice.

  4. Apps using Electron probably didn’t know that they were even using private API. Neither Xcode nor Application Loader reports this, and App Review was accepting the apps.

  5. The rule is not being enforced equally.

The first point is relevant, but does not make a difference in whether the apps should be approved, hence Tsai’s second point. The third and fifth points are yet another entry in Apple’s biggest problem with the App Review process, which is its inconsistency and opacity.

But the fourth argument here is critical: private APIs are risky to use in any case, but it’s absurd to use them in a software platform. In this case, it’s layers of dependencies failing developers: apps are built on top of Electron, which is built on Chromium, which uses private APIs to help its atrocious battery and CPU consumption. It isn’t as though Slack — to use a notorious example — actually needs a 200 MB app to run its glorified IRC client.

After Being Sued for Calling a Private Citizen a Pedophile and Settling Fraud Charges in a Separate Incident, Elon Musk Realizes Twitter Might Not Be for Him

Maria Jose Valero, Bloomberg:

Twitter has fallen out of Elon Musk’s favor as the Tesla CEO vowed to “go offline” on Friday. It’s unclear, however, when he would do so as the executive has teased the move before.

Musk’s Twitter account was still active 20 minutes after the post.

In June, Musk said he had deleted his Twitter account, though he stayed active after the post. He briefly changed his Twitter name on the platform to “Daddy DotCom” before reverting to his own.

Last year, Musk settled SEC fraud charges related to tweets he sent out indicating that he was taking Tesla private by paying a $20 million fine and stepping down as chairman. In April, he renegotiated his tweeting privileges. Last month, documents were released in the case of a suit filed by a British cave diver who Musk accused of being a pedophile in a tweet because the diver criticized Musk’s submarine; it was decided earlier this week that the case would go to trial. Yesterday, Musk whined about a Tesla losing a drag race. He’s not very good at projecting the image of a well-adjusted public figure and dependable businessman using Twitter.

The big wet president of the United States continues to broadcast nonsense two hundred and eighty blessed characters at a time.

Update: He lasted three days.

An Airbnb Scam Demonstrates the Site’s Toothless Policies

Allie Conti, Vice:

I was thankful I’d gotten the last-minute agreement in writing, but I also started to wonder what had actually happened in Chicago. Unable to shake the sense that this was more than a run-of-the-mill bad host, I started to look for red flags I must have missed. It didn’t take long to find a few. For one, the phone number that the Airbnb host had called me with was a Google number that couldn’t be traced. Through a reverse image search, I also realized that the profile picture Becky and Andrew had used on Airbnb was a stock photo from a website that hosts surfing-themed desktop wallpapers. And when I started going through other people’s reviews of Becky and Andrew’s properties, I noticed some other renters had reported experiences that strangely mirrored my own. A woman said she was forced to switch up her itinerary three minutes before check-in due to alleged plumbing issues. A man said that he was promised a refund because his rental was “falling apart,” though it never materialized.

Even some of the positive reviews of Becky and Andrew’s Chicago rentals seemed odd, especially those left by other pairs of hosts. Kelsey and Jean, for example, said Becky and Andrew were “awesome and communicative guests.” But they themselves were based in Chicago, where it seemed they had at least two properties of their own. Why would they need to rent from someone else there? Even stranger, Kelsey and Jean’s photo also had been cribbed from a travel site, and the language they used to describe their home (“Westloop 6 Bed Getaway – Walk the City”) seemed similar to that of Becky and Andrew’s (“6 Bed Downtown / Wicker Park / Walk the City”). It wasn’t long before I found what looked an awful lot like the apartment I’d originally booked with Becky and Andrew—the one on North Wood Street—listed by Kelsey and Jean as well. There was no mistaking it: The couch, coffee table, dining room set, and wall art were all the same.

I started to wonder whether “Becky and Andrew” and “Kelsey and Jean” existed at all.

This is a brilliant investigation, well told.

It’s almost as though operating businesses free of regulation under the guise of “disruption” leads to predictable consequences that scale-obsessed platform owners struggle to solve.

iOS 13.2 Is More Aggressive at Killing Background Apps and Tasks

Yours truly on Twitter yesterday:

I thought it was just a beta thing, but iOS’ memory management has taken a big step back — as in, back to the pre-multitasking days of quitting and launching apps instead of switching between them.

Natalia Ossipova:

Lost a 3+ hours @GoZwift ride because of that. Had to switch to Settings to restore Wi-Fi connection and on return to Zwift the app was relaunched. An all-time 5 min power peak, two KOMs and a lot of kudos gone. Staying alive in the background is crucial to fitness apps.

Marco Arment:

I’ve noticed this since the first 13.2 betas, and Overcast users keep reporting it as well: background apps seem to be getting killed MUCH more aggressively than before.

(Especially on the iPhone 11 if you use the camera, presumably because it needs so much RAM for processing.)

I’m used to the camera purging all open apps from memory on my iPhone X, but iOS 13.2 goes above and beyond in killing background tasks. Earlier today, I was switching between a thread in Messages and a recipe in Safari and each app entirely refreshed every time I foregrounded it. This happens all the time throughout the system in iOS 13: Safari can’t keep even a single tab open in the background, every app boots from scratch, and using iOS feels like it has regressed to the pre-multitasking days. As bugs go, this is isn’t a catastrophic one, but it absolutely should be the highest of priorities to fix it. It’s embarrassing that all of the hard work put into making animations and app launching feel smooth is squandered by mismanaged multitasking.

G/O Media’s Plan to Juice Its Ad Numbers Backfires After Farmers Insurance Pulls Its Million-Dollar Commitment and Deadspin’s Staff Quit en Masse

A bit of followup related to yesterday’s dumpster fire at Deadspin: you may recall that one source of the rift between editorial and management staff at G/O Media has been the company’s recent carpet bombing of autoplaying video ads across the websites it owns, in a move not unlike someone cutting their own fingers off and wondering why they are in so much pain. Everyone knows that autoplaying video ads are a violation of an implicit code between websites owners and visitors — I can’t imagine a single person finding them anything less than obtrusive, and their distraction is disrespectful to readers and writers alike.

Sahil Patel, Wall Street Journal:

The Farmers deal, which began last month and is worth $1 million, required G/O Media to deliver nearly 43.5 million ad impressions through September 2020, according to internal G/O Media emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The publisher’s media and ad operations teams believed it was unlikely G/O Media could deliver that many, according to the emails.

After failing to hit ad impression targets within the first few weeks of the campaign, G/O Media decided to start playing videos with the sound on as soon as pages loaded, according to people familiar with the matter. That included stand-alone video ads for Farmers inside article pages as well as preroll ads before editorial videos.

This was done with the approval of Farmers, but it failed spectacularly, as Maxwell Tani reported for the Daily Beast earlier today:

Multiple sources confirmed to The Daily Beast that following the editorial team’s public criticism of the ads, Farmers informed G/O that it would not continue with the campaign which, according to the Journal, was worth $1 million and required the media company to deliver nearly 43.5 million ad impressions through next year.

As I wrote yesterday, a man who hates everything Gawker stood for bought the company and it backfired when he tried to ruin the company from the inside.

Oh, and then lots of reporters quit today. Like, pretty much any staff member who was able just walked out.

G/O Media’s management short of shrugged at having lost some of the most talented writers on the web as they attempt to turn each of their publications into the most generic version of itself.

Deep Fusion Is Brilliant

Speaking of photography on the iPhone 11, Matt Birchler illustrates the effect of Deep Fusion on a photo of his dog, and it is stunning. Even compared to RAW or the formidable Pixel 4’s camera, there’s nothing in it: Deep Fusion really does make an awesome amount of difference.

A Deep Look at the Software and Hardware Changes in the iPhone 11’s Camera System

Sebastiaan de With of Halide:

Last month, we took a look at what is new in the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro’s camera hardware. You might’ve noticed two things from Apple’s iPhone announcement event and our blog post: the hardware changes seem fairly modest, with more attention directed at this generation’s software based processing.

It’s true: The great advances in camera quality for these new iPhones are mostly to blame on advanced (and improved) software processing.

I’ve taken some time to analyze the iPhone 11’s new image capture pipeline, and it looks like one of the greatest changes in iPhone cameras yet.

Come for the insightful explanation of the new iPhone 11 camera features, but stay for de With’s phenomenal examples. This is one of those articles that you’ll want to save for reading on the best display you’ve got.

What’s Happening at Deadspin Is a Travesty

Jeremy Gordon of the Outline, a website that I feel terrible for subjecting readers to as they have, for some ungodly reason, built their own layout engine which breaks scrolling but, hey, they can show those irritating animated squiggly lines, so that’s something:

For the past several months, the new owners have paid seemingly unique attention to diminishing Deadspin. Most egregiously was the request — long rumored, and made official on Monday — that the site “stick to sports,” in line with the completely facile line of logic that sports fans only want to know about the score and the game and not anything else. Besides the fact that sports themselves are frequently political, Deadspin also specifically flourished as an umbrella for topics often beyond the purview of straight sports. Its readers overwhelmingly responded positively to this, as verified anecdotally — is there a better writer on Donald Trump in this country than writer/editor David Roth? — and officially by traffic numbers published by former editor Timothy Burke.

Nonetheless, so the new diktat went, issued by men refusing to understand the websites they spent millions of dollars acquiring. On Tuesday, the staffers responded by only posting non-sports stories. They trafficked normally, of course, but corporate retribution followed a few hours later when deputy editor Barry Petchesky was fired for, in his words, “not sticking to sports.” Petchesky, who’d worked there for a decade, and kept the site running as the search for a new editor-in-chief continued — because who would want to work for people like Spanfeller and Maidment, or for a staff already trained to sniff out a patsy? — produced thousands upon thousands of blogs (and more) for Deadspin. Firing a highly productive, widely beloved, well-tenured employee as petty revenge sounds stupid, but I guess I’m not smart enough to be the CEO of G/O Media.

Molly Lambert:

RIP blogging we all tried real hard to make the internet good and then corporations and rich idiots destroyed everything a generation of writers tried to build.

Brent Simmons:

You choose the web you want. But you have to do the work.

A lot of people are doing the work. You could keep telling them, discouragingly, that what they’re doing is dead. Or you could join in the fun.

Again: you choose.

This isn’t even a question of economics, per se, as Deadspin — and, indeed, G/O Media entities as a whole — are profitable. Deadspin’s future isn’t in jeopardy because it wasn’t making enough money, but because a jury in Florida decided that Hulk Hogan was owed over a hundred million dollars because his public image was embarrassed, in a case bankrolled by Peter Thiel due to a personal vendetta against Gawker. The network of profitable sites was then sold to Univision and used as collateral by its private equity owners, which piled on billions of dollars of debt. Those sites were then sold to Great Hill Partners, another private equity group, which installed as CEO a guy who seems to hate everything about the sites, and who used to run the Internet Advertising Bureau — which might explain why all of these websites are now laden with garbage advertising.

All of this is to say that blogging is a format that is still very much alive, especially if you stretch the definition. But the most powerful people in the room desperately dislike the validity of independent and unconventional writing, and are doing all they can to dismantle it.

David Roth, Deadspin:

The work that those people do in those jobs touches the lives of many millions of other people; it can elevate and honor the dignity of those people’s lives or it can deny it for reasons relating to avarice or arrogance or stupid abject cruelty. It is not rude to look straight at this, and it is not wrong to be angry when and where it fails. There really is something that every person owes to everyone else, and it is not deference. Our leaders owe us more of that than we owe them, but the crowds do owe at least one thing to the people in the owner’s boxes. When they are wrong—when they dishonor us and themselves, when they are vicious and lazy and shortsighted and demand to be celebrated for it—we should let them hear it.

This post is about the U.S. President getting booed during Sunday’s World Series game — of course it is, because Roth has dutifully stuck to sports.

Of course.

Molekule Is Using the California Wildfires to Sell Its Crummy Air Purifier

Sarah Emerson, OneZero:

California is again on fire. In Sonoma County, the Kincade Fire is ripping through communities and threatening to reach the Pacific Coast. It is one of half-a-dozen major fires currently threatening the state. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes throughout the county, and even more are facing power blackouts by PG&E.

And Molekule is once again advertising against the disaster, running promoted posts on Instagram that play on the public’s fear of wildfire smoke. Molekule isn’t the only brand that stands to benefit from a burning California, but the company’s ads feel opportunistic. Compared to other air purifiers, Molekule’s air purifier is wildly expensive, and looks like something you’d find in a millionaire’s doomsday bunker.

Earlier this month, the Wirecutter published their roundup of the best air purifiers on the market. They included the Molekule in their tests and were shocked by how badly it performed. Also, it has one of those bright blue LED lights that cannot be turned off while it’s in use which, while not quite as bad as selling an air purifier that doesn’t really do the thing it says it does, ought to be enough to disqualify the purchase of any product.

Elon Musk is also using the wildfires as a marketing opportunity, though Justine Calma of the Verge frames it somewhat differently. It’s subtle, but see if you can spot it:

Musk offered $1,000 off [solar panels and Powerwalls] to customers who are affected by the outages. His generosity is likely to benefit more affluent Californians’ who are coping with the power loss, given the price of a home installation. On its website, Tesla lists the average price of a Solar Roof as $33,950. Its home battery system, the Powerwall, costs roughly $14,100 for a 2,200-square-foot home. The company unveiled Solar Glass Roof tiles just three days ago.

It is, of course, a good thing to make solar power more accessible. It is vulgar to tie this promotion to a disaster of staggering proportions.

Update: Molekule is apologizing, says that they’ve donated products to the fires — which is a weird way to phrase a donation to, I assume, those affected, but okay — and has pulled the ads.

The Advertising Industry Begins to Realize That Bombarding Audiences Doesn’t Work

Tiffany Hsu, New York Times:

In the predigital days, advertising agencies were ruled by swaggering creative directors who gorged on lavish client contracts and sometimes created campaigns that set the cultural agenda and captivated the public.

Nearly every piece of that equation has changed. Agencies are better informed than ever before about consumers, having amassed huge stores of their data. But many of those consumers, especially the affluent young people prized by advertisers, hate ads so much that they are paying to avoid them.

At the same time, companies that hire ad agencies are demanding more from marketing campaigns — while paying less for them.

As a result, the advertising industry faces an “existential need for change,” according to a blunt report published on Monday by the research firm Forrester. Now the agencies must “disassemble what remains of their outmoded model” or risk “falling further into irrelevance,” the report concludes.

There used to be an art to advertising. That’s not to say that all ads were art, but there was an expectation that creative directors would put in the effort to be, well, creative. It’s hard to argue that Google and Facebook ads are anything of the sort, while advertisers become increasingly desperate. It’s disappointing to see the slow demise of this applied art form.

Apple’s Obese Marketing Webpage for the AirPods Pro

John Gruber:

The AirPods Pro “overview” web page is a strange beast. It pegs my 2015 MacBook Pro’s CPU — I closed the tab a few minutes ago and my fan is still running. The animation is very jerky and scrolling feels so slow. There’s so much scrolljacking that you have to scroll or page down several times just to go to the next section of the page. The animation is at least smooth on my iPad and iPhone, but even there, it feels like a thousand swipes to get to the bottom of the page.

It is a truly obscene webpage. By the time I got to the bottom on my non-Retina MacBook Air, it had loaded over 66 MB of assets and had chalked up over 1,600 HTTP requests — for one webpage.

At least it’s not the iPad Pro marketing page, where vertical scrolling is converted to sideways scrolling.

Apple Releases iOS and iPadOS 13.2

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Apple today released iOS 13.2, the second major update to the iOS and iPadOS 13 operating systems. The new software updates come two weeks after the release of iOS/iPadOS 13.1.3 and over a month after the initial release of iOS 13.

If you’re shocked by the speed of Apple’s software update rollout this autumn, you’re not inventing things. iOS 12 didn’t get to 12.2 until March of this year. Only about half of iOS releases ever saw a x.2 version, and most of those were released in December, with only a couple near the end of November. None have been released in October.

I’ve been running the betas and 13.2 feels like the release that iOS 13 should have been. It’s less buggy than the general release — though there are still plenty to go around — but it’s more feature complete. My favourite new thing is Announce Messages with Siri.

If you have a set of AirPods or PowerBeats headphones with an H1 chip, you can now have Siri read incoming messages as they arrive and reply to them immediately — all without going through a whole “Hey, Siri” process. On its surface, this is magic. When it works and it’s in the right place at the right time — say, while I’m walking or cycling, or when I’m expecting a message from someone — it’s really nice to not have to touch my phone, especially when I’m wearing a traditional watch. Even if you’re using an Apple Watch, this feature is quite nice because it means you can be even more selective about what buzzes your wrist.

It lowers the volume of music you’re listening to or pauses your podcast, plays a unique notification chime, and Siri reads the message you’ve received. I still can’t believe the Siri voice is entirely synthetic; it sounds terrific, like having a narrator reading your friend’s incoming messages. Then, you can reply just by speaking, if you want. You don’t need to say “hey, Siri” — you can just talk and it will send it as a reply. If you don’t say anything for a few seconds, your music will fade back or your podcast will resume playing.

A nice touch is that subsequent messages from the same person will be read in a conversational tone, like “Rebecca also says…”. Something I did not expect is that message announcements are limited by length. Messages of over — I think — 256 characters won’t be read in full by Siri; it will only say “a message”.

If you’re popular, I imagine that it could get quite irritating to have your music or podcast constantly interrupted — I wouldn’t know, firsthand. In this feature’s settings — under Siri and Search, then Announce Messages with Siri — you can limit message announcements to just favourites, recents, contacts, or allow Siri to read messages from everyone. You can also add a tile to Control Centre which, when expanded, allows muting for an hour or the rest of the day, in addition to switching it on or off entirely.

This feature isn’t limited to Apple’s Messages app, etiher: third-party developers can support Announce Messages with Siri by adding INSearchForMessagesIntentIdentifier to their app’s notification category.

Announce Messages with Siri is one of the things I was thinking of when I wrote that AirPods feel like the future. It’s such a smart, simple feature that allows you to keep your phone in your pocket or bag, but still get the messages that matter most.

There are loads of new features in 13.2 aside from this: Deep Fusion support for those with an iPhone 11, privacy options for Siri and dictation, support for the new AirPods Pro headphones announced this morning, and new emoji. Good things all around, with one caveat: on my iPhone X, I’ve noticed apps getting booted from memory much sooner than in previous releases, often as soon as I’ve switched to another app. I’m not sure if this bug is present in the release version or if it’s something specific to my phone, but I hope this doesn’t persist.

Bundling, Unbundling, and Rebundling

Drew Austin, writing for Real Life:

Things that have been unbundled rarely remain unbundled for very long. Whether digital or physical, people actually like bundles, because they supply a legible social structure and simplify the complexity presented by a paralyzing array of consumer choices. The Silicon Valley disruption narrative implies that bundles are suboptimal and thus bad, but as it turns out, it is only someone else’s bundles that are bad: The tech industry’s unbundling has actually paved the way for invidious forms of rebundling. The apps and services that replaced the newspaper are now bundled on iPhone home screens or within social media platforms, where they are combined with new things that no consumer asked for: advertising, data mining, and manipulative interfaces. Facebook, for instance, unbundled a variety of long-established social practices from their existing analog context — photo sharing, wishing a friend happy birthday, or inviting someone to a party — and recombined them into its new bundle, accompanied by ad targeting and algorithmic filtering. In such cases, a bundle becomes less a bargain than a form of coercion, locking users into arrangements that are harder to escape than what they replaced. Ironically, digital bundles like Facebook also introduce novel ambiguities and adjacencies in place of those they sought to eliminate, such as anger about the political leanings of distant acquaintances or awareness of social gatherings that happened without you (side effects that are likely to motivate future unbundling efforts in turn).

A thoughtful essay that challenges our perceived gains from disassociating discrete components from their combined whole, some of which touches on themes similar to Alexis C. Madrigal’s essay about the servant economy.

Zuck Testified Before the House Financial Services Committee and It Did Not Go Well for Him

Tony Romm, Washington Post:

Congressional lawmakers delivered a broad lashing of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday, sniping at his company’s plans to launch a digital currency, its pockmarked track record on privacy and diversity, and its struggles to prevent the spread of misinformation.

The wide-ranging criticisms came largely from Democrats during a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee, which convened the session to probe Facebook’s plan to launch a cryptocurrency, called Libra. Facebook’s efforts have catalyzed a rare alignment of opposition from the party’s members of Congress and some Trump administration officials, who are concerned Libra could trouble the global financial system.

Quickly, though, the hearing expanded in focus, reflecting the simmering frustrations on Capitol Hill with practically the entirety of Facebook’s business. […]

The questions from the most prepared representatives today were illuminating and appeared to take Mark “I’m Not Sure” Zuckerberg by surprise.

Cecilia Kang, Mike Isaac, and Nathaniel Popper, New York Times:

Representative Nydia M. Velázquez, a Democrat from New York, pointed to Facebook’s promise in its acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014 to keep the messaging app separate from the main Facebook platform. A few years later, Mr. Zuckerberg announced it would merge data between the two apps.

“Do you understand why this record makes us concerned with Facebook entering the cryptocurrency space? Have you learned that you should not lie?” Ms. Velázquez said.

“Congresswoman, I would disagree with the characterization,” he said before getting cut off by further questions.

Rep. Katie Porter had one of the most memorable exchanges:

Rep. Porter: Facebook’s known as a great place to work: free food, ping pong tables, great employee benefits. But Facebook doesn’t use its employees for the hardest jobs in the company. You’ve got about 15,000 contractors watching murders, stabbings, suicides, and other gruesome, disgusting videos for content moderation — correct?

Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, yes, I believe that’s correct.

Rep. Porter: You pay many of those workers under $30,000 per year, and you’ve cut them off from mental health care when they leave the company, even if they have PTSD because of their work for your company. Is that correct?

Zuckerberg: Um, congresswoman, my understanding is that we pay everyone, including the contractors associated with the company, at least a $15 minimum wage. In markets and cities with a high cost of living, that’s a $20 minimum wage. We go out of our way to offer a lot of —

Rep. Porter: Thank you, I take your word at the wage. Reclaiming my time. According to one report I have — and this is straight out of an episode of Black Mirror — these workers get nine — nine — minutes of supervised wellness time per day. That means nine minutes to cry in the stairwell while someone watches them. Would you be willing to commit to spending one hour a day for the next year watching these videos and acting as a content monitor, and only accessing the same benefits available to your workers?

Zuckerberg: Uh — congresswoman, we work hard to make sure we give good benefits to all of the folks who are doing this.

Rep. Porter: Mr. Zuckerberg — reclaiming my time — I would appreciate a yes or a no. Would you be willing to act as a content monitor — to have that life experience?

Zuckerberg: I’m not sure it would best serve our community for me to spend that much time —

Rep. Porter: Reclaiming my time. Mr. Zuckerberg, are you saying you’re not qualified to be a content monitor?

Zuckerberg: No, congresswoman, that’s not what I’m saying.

I can’t work out whether the expression on Zuckerberg’s face when he delivered that last line is one of frustrated politeness, or if he was smirking because he saw where Rep. Porter was going with her line of questioning.

One topic that kept coming up today was Facebook’s recent loosening of a longtime ban on falsehoods in political ads.

The Times, again:

Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, clashed with Mr. Zuckerberg on Facebook’s desire not to fact-check political campaign advertising.

Ms. Tlaib said the practice had resulted in widespread hate-mongering and a flurry of false information about her, personally. “It is hate speech, it’s hate, and it’s leading to violence and death threats in my office,” she said.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: You announced recently that the official policy of Facebook now allows politicians to pay to spread disinformation in 2020 elections and in the future. So, I just want to know how far I can push this in the next year. Under your policy — you know, and using census data as well — could I pay to target predominantly black zip codes and advertise to them the incorrect election date?

Zuckerberg: No, congresswoman, you couldn’t. We have — even for these policies around the newsworthiness of content that politicians say, and the general principle that I believe that —

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: But you said you’re not going to fact check my ads.

Zuckerberg: If anyone, including a politician, is saying things that can cause — that is calling for violence, or could risk imminent physical harm, or voter or census suppression — when we roll out the census suppression policy — we will take that content down.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: So you will — there is some threshold where you will fact-check political advertisements. Is that what you’re telling me?

Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, yes, for specific things like that where there is imminent risk of harm —

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: Could I run ads targeting Republicans in primaries saying they voted for the Green New Deal?

Zuckerberg: Sorry, can you repeat that?

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal? I mean, if you’re not fact-checking political advertisements — I’m just trying to understand the bounds here. What’s fair game?

Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head. I think probably.

I struggle with this policy shift. I’ve previously argued that this clearly benefits bad faith arguments and politicians that have a most tenuous relationship with facts. I think it’s especially worrying that advertisements on Facebook can be highly targeted, so lies can be broadcast to much smaller groups of individuals and, therefore, being easier to evade detection. In the recent Canadian election, both the Liberal Party and Conservative Party targeted ads containing lies at Chinese-language Facebook users. That’s obviously appalling, as are the threats towards Rep. Tlaib that she says result from ads containing falsehoods.

There is no easy segue here, but I do wish to point out two things. First, I struggle to believe that Facebook would be an effective moderator of the truth. Also, Facebook’s policy shift brings the website in alignment with longstanding policy that generally exempts politicians from false advertising standards — this is also true for Canadian ads. Legally, politicians can lie in ads all they want about their own record or their opponents’ as long as they play dumb when asked about it, but overestimating the lifespan of lightbulbs is verboten. Oh, and you can claim that your drink comprising over 99% apple and grape juice is a pomegranate blueberry blend — that’s fine, too.

Facebook struggles with content moderation at a base level; expecting them to fact check politicians’ advertisements around the world seems like an implausible stretch. That’s not to say that Facebook should do nothing: I think it would be helpful to remove the ability to target political advertising by anything other than country and language. I also see the need for greater action against advertising falsehoods, because lying to consumers is a form of fraud in myriad contexts, and I don’t know why that standard ought to be different for politicians.

More importantly, I think these are all manifestations of an increasingly untrustworthy and untruthful climate. Coca-Cola should not be using the most careful reading of the law to label its apple and grape juice with other fruits — that shouldn’t even be a question. Nor should politicians feel like they should be able to spread outright lies in their promotional materials. This sounds incredibly naïve, I realize, but the current level of cynicism is not supportive of a functional democracy. We should not have such low expectations.

I remain perplexed, dismayed, and frustrated that “fine print” is something that exists at all, and that there is an expectation that public officials will knowingly lie to voters.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Argues for National Broadband Regulation

Marguerite Reardon, CNet:

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai worries a patchwork of local and state regulations on internet technologies could hurt the competitiveness of the US in the tech sector. 

Speaking at the WSJ Tech Live conference in Laguna Beach, California, on Monday, Pai made the case for harmonizing regulation among federal and state and local governments. He said that entrepreneurs and innovators not only need to consider the complexities of federal regulation, but they must also navigate regulations imposed by each of the 50 state governments, hundreds of local municipalities, as well as the more than 500 federally recognized native American tribes, which all want to take “a bite of the regulatory apple.” 

He argued that “while that federalist system has served us very well” up to this point in our nation’s history, it’s time for Congress to consider “whether or not we can still maintain a multilayer regulatory system.” He said allowing states and local governments to pass their own laws regulating internet services, which inherently cross state lines, creates market uncertainty.

This follows a court decision earlier this month which upheld Pai’s undoing of Obama-era net neutrality regulations, but which allowed states to set their own policy.

It also happens to be something Pai said just a week after the New York Times published an op-ed — written by a lobbyist for Facebook and Google — arguing for a national privacy law instead of state-level laws. Later last week, Sen. Ron Wyden introduced a national privacy bill — which, incidentally, the aforementioned lobbyist’s organization has not publicly addressed.

In both cases, regulation at the national level would be more efficient than state laws, and it would set expectations of behaviour across the United States. But Pai spearheaded the dismantling of widely-supported FCC policies in favour of an anti-regulatory environment. He has only himself to blame.

Katie Couric Interviews Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit

Claire Landsbaum, Vanity Fair:

“I’m conscious that this clock is beeping at us,” Sheryl Sandberg said to Katie Couric onstage at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit, gesturing toward the lip of the stage. “They’re going to give me a little extra time,” Couric replied, smiling conspiratorially at the audience. Much to the crowd’s delight, Couric’s grilling of the Facebook COO did indeed go over time, backing Sandberg into perhaps the tightest corner in which she’s publicly found herself. As Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify in Washington about Libra, the new cryptocurrency Facebook is backing, Couric pushed Sandberg to address topics like the measures Facebook has taken to protect elections, the prospect of Facebook being broken up, Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy, and Zuckerberg’s invocation of Martin Luther King Jr. that was rebuffed by his daughter Bernice King.

Matt Donnelly, Variety:

“My real fear is that in 2020, it is going to be the battle of the billionaires, of secret groups working for people aligned on both sides, who are trying to manipulate us at scale, online,” Couric quoted [Alex Stamos]. “What is Facebook doing to defend the platform against this kind of domestic threat?”

Sandberg ceded it was a good question, and responded that on Facebook “the transparency is dramatically different,” noting that content pages will now receive geotags identifying their origin points whether they like it or not.

Couric was not satisfied. “But then why did Facebook announce not to fact check political ads last month? The Rand Corporation actually has a term for this, ‘truth decay.’ Mark [Zuckerberg] himself has defended this decision even as the press have expressed concerns about the erosion of truth online. What is the rationale for that?”

Couric’s interview was incisive but fair for the chief operating officer of a company as manipulative and engrained as Facebook. The Vanity Fair link contains a full video of the forty-odd minute interview.

Google Is Shifting Some Products Toward Paid Subscriptions

Gerrit De Vynck, Bloomberg:

Google lured billions of consumers to its digital services by offering copious free cloud storage. That’s beginning to change.

The Alphabet Inc. unit has whittled down some free storage offers in recent months, while prodding more users toward a new paid cloud subscription called Google One. That’s happening as the amount of data people stash online continues to soar.

Google has made changes recently — such as ending unlimited original quality photo backups for buyers of Pixel phones — and is increasingly steering users towards paying for storage. That’s a strategy shift for an advertising company that has been known to offer ludicrous amounts of free stuff in exchange for personal data, and it aligns them more closely with companies that charge money for services.

As a strategy shift, though, it has some hiccups:

When people hit those caps, they realize they have little choice but to start paying, or risk losing access to emails, photos and personal documents. The cost isn’t excessive for most consumers, but at the scale Google operates, this could generate billions of dollars in extra revenue each year for the company. Google didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

Because Google offers a sizeable chunk of storage at no cost, users are far more invested in using their accounts when they hit its limit.

Use Your AppleCare Coverage Before It Expires

I don’t normally do public service announcements, but here’s one that I think is worthwhile: use your AppleCare benefits before they vanish. This advice applies mostly to those with AppleCare plans of a fixed term — two years for an iOS device; three for a Mac. If you have continuous AppleCare coverage because you’re on the iPhone upgrade plan or you’ve chosen an AppleCare subscription, this piece may be less relevant.

I’ve had AppleCare+ on my iPhone X since I bought it; the two-year plan expires at the beginning of November. I don’t normally buy AppleCare, but the fragility of a device with two large panels of glass combined with its expense encouraged me to pick it up. It’s been nearly two years since I bought my phone and, since I don’t plan on upgrading until next year, I thought it would be a good idea to make it feel new for a little while longer. I figured I’d try replacing my scratched display for the AppleCare cost of about $40 Canadian.

I booked an appointment Saturday as a “cracked screen” — there’s no option for “a few hairline scratches and my oleophobic coating has worn off” — and was completely honest with the Genius upon arriving about what I wanted to do. They said it was fine. I came back about forty minutes later to pick up my re-screened iPhone and was told that I’d be getting a new device because they found a swollen battery after opening it up.

This isn’t a suggestion to blag a new phone by exploiting AppleCare benefits. It’s a reminder to make the most of the coverage you already have. I’m glad I booked an appointment to address an issue that is arguably trivial and solely cosmetic. I think it’s worth getting an appointment near the end of a fixed-length AppleCare plan to verify that everything about your device is working correctly, and to fix or replace anything that may not be. It can keep your device feeling like-new for years to come.

Screen Time in Catalina Is a Sloppy Mac Port

Kirk McElhearn:

Screen Time is a feature that Apple added to iOS 12, which allows you to keep track of how much time you spend on each app you use, how many times you wake up your iOS device, and how many notifications you receive. This data can help you cut down on your device usage, and you can use Screen Time to set limits for your kids.

Screen Time was also added to macOS Catalina, with the same features. However, it doesn’t seem to work correctly. Rather than showing which apps are frontmost when you work, it shows how long apps are open.

This is an embarrassing Mac port of a good iOS feature. It’s fine for getting an idea of how long you’re spending in front of your Mac and it’s probably helpful as a parental control mechanism, but it tells you almost nothing about how you use the applications on your Mac.

Some terminology also hasn’t been changed:

Screen Time also records “Pickups.” While this makes sense for an iOS device — how many times you picked up your iPhone and woke it up — it really makes little sense on the Mac. A pickup on the Mac is the number of times you woke the device from sleep, or restarted it.

Screen Time isn’t useless on the Mac, but it is sloppy — a halfway-ported version of an iOS feature with little thought given to how MacOS is used differently. It’s as ill-considered as the implementation of full screen apps in Lion.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Meaningless ‘Free Speech’ Defence of Facebook’s Inconsistent Moderation Policies

Kari Paul, the Guardian:

Mark Zuckerberg touted Facebook as a champion of “free expression” in a wide-sweeping speech, offering a staunch defense of the social media giant following several rocky years characterized by allegations against the platform of censorship and bias.

Speaking at Georgetown University on Thursday, the Facebook CEO invoked Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr and Black Lives Matter as a means of positioning Facebook as a champion for freedom of speech.

Zuckerberg defended the company’s decision to allow misinformation in political advertising on the platform, despite high-profile pushback against the policy.

Jillian C. York, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, writing for Vice:

But, to free expression advocates like me, Zuckerberg’s speech feels like empty words in the absence of any concrete changes to the company’s questionable policies on speech. Just this month, the company announced controversial exceptions to its fact-checking policies and prohibition on hate speech for politicians, effectively creating a separate and higher tier for those whose words have more power to harm than those of ordinary citizens. Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg — himself a former politician — stated that he didn’t believe it would be “acceptable to society at large to have a private company … become a self-appointed referee for everything that politicians say.”

In asserting a fresh stance on free expression, Zuckerberg might have, for instance, reconsidered Facebook’s long-criticized “authentic name policy” that puts users around the world at risk of harm, but which the company insists allows for greater civility, despite ample evidence to the contrary. He could have listened more closely to the women and non-binary users, as well as the artist communities of Facebook who have protested the company’s ban on “female nipples” as discriminatory and outdated (in his speech, he called pornography “harmful” but said nothing about nudity). Zuckerberg might have reconsidered the company’s ever-expanding use of AI to adjudicate hate speech, given its clearly negative impact on LGBTQ users. Or, when he was speaking pridefully about how the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag was first mentioned on Facebook, he might have also acknowledged his company’s role in silencing important speech related to the movement.

York’s piece is the article I was trying to write last night, but the right words didn’t appear in the right order. It’s a robust argument that the company does not support free speech to a meaningful degree, but it’s also not a well-moderated platform. Zuckerberg wants to be able to claim that Facebook is a champion of free speech when it’s convenient to them — for instance, when it’s making money by selling ads to liars — but doesn’t want to deal with the actual difficulties that a free-for-all platform enables — and it ends up being horrible at both.

Zappos’ Proposed Settlement for a 2012 Data Breach Affecting Millions Is a 10% Off Coupon

Josephine Wolff, Slate:

In January 2012, the Amazon-owned online retailer Zappos suffered a major data breach that exposed personal information of about 24 million of the site’s customers, including names, addresses, passwords, and the last four digits of their credit card numbers. The fallout from large-scale data breaches is never resolved quickly, but even by those standards, the settlement that Zappos proposed this fall was a little bit shocking both in how long it took to reach and how little it offered to victims of the breach.

The settlement, which was submitted for approval to the United States District Court for the District of Nevada in September, provides a 10-percent-off code for one Zappos order per affected customer, but the discount has to be used by 11:59 Pacific time on Dec. 31, 2019, or within 60 days of being distributed to affected customers, whichever is later. The deal has already received preliminary approval and is likely to be finalized in the coming weeks. It’s an astonishing step backward in data breach settlements and a disheartening reminder of how easy it is for major companies to still walk away from data breaches with minimal consequences.

No data breach is good, but the Zappos one is relatively minor in terms of the severity of data exposed. Contrary to Wolff’s reporting, passwords themselves were not exposed, only encrypted hashes. Names and addresses aren’t public, per se, but nor are they alarmingly private. Likewise, the last four digits of a credit card appear on receipts, so it’s not like they’re considered extremely sensitive either.

But the combination of these elements can be dangerous. The email account used for a Zappos account is likely tied to other services; home addresses don’t change often, either. Mat Honan’s accounts and computer were compromised, in part, because Apple relied upon the last four digits of a credit card number as a security measure. I’m not sure this is still the case with Apple, but I’ve been asked for the last four digits of my credit card number as a unique identifier several times within the past year by different companies.

Regardless of the actual impact of Zappos’ breach, this settlement is a joke. Those affected will only receive a benefit if they purchase something else with Zappos and, even then, the value of the settlement will be paltry. Zappos basically won a marketing blitz just in time for the holidays. You can opt out or express disapproval if you’re affected by this.

It sure would be great if there were some punitive measure to hold businesses accountable for the security of their vast and unnecessary hoarding of personally-identifiable details.

MacGeneration Finds an Icon for a 16-Inch MacBook Pro in the Latest Catalina Beta

Joe Rossignol, MacRumors:

Icons possibly depicting the widely rumored 16-inch MacBook Pro have been uncovered by French blog MacGeneration in the first two betas of macOS Catalina version 10.15.1, which has been in testing since last week.

The icon looks similar to the 15-inch MacBook Pro asset that is included in previous versions of macOS, but with slightly thinner bezels. The notebook is depicted in both Silver and Space Gray, with “16” in both filenames presumably referring to the larger 16-inch display expected for the rumored machine.

The way these files are named seems to be causing some confusion, as the next MacBook Pro would have an identifier of MacBookPro16,1 and, so, the “16” in the file name could refer to the model identifier instead of the screen size; the models released earlier this year are identified as MacBookPro15,1. But Apple has long named the files in the CoreTypes bundle in accordance with their physical characteristics. The 15-inch models have “15” in their names; the iMac icons are named according to screen size, too.

The weirdest part of the plist posted by Steven Troughton-Smith, however, is the Space Grey icon at the bottom. The plist says to display the 16-inch Space Grey icon for the MacBookPro14,2 model; that’s the 2017 13-inch Touch Bar model. A typo, surely, but an odd one, and it would not surprise me if the 16-inch had a 14-inch companion model. Update: I should clarify that I anticipate a 14-inch MacBook Pro would not be surprising if the 15-inch model is to be replaced with the new 16-inch model.

So it seems like there’s a new MacBook Pro coming, and the timing is right for an update to the iPad Pro line. Toss in an update to the shipping date for the new Mac Pro and maybe those rumoured AirPods (Pro?), and it sure sounds like one more product announcement (event?) is in store for the year — though, perhaps a little later than one might expect.

Samsung Is Working to Patch a Flaw With Their Under-Display Fingerprint Reader, Which Can Be Defeated With a Screen Protector

Ju-min Park, Reuters:

Samsung Electronics Co Ltd said on Thursday it will soon roll out a software patch to fix problems with fingerprint recognition on its flagship Galaxy S10 smartphone.

A British user told the Sun newspaper this week that a bug on her Galaxy S10 allowed it to be unlocked regardless of the biometric data registered in the device.

After she bought a third-party screen protector, her husband was able to unlock her phone using his fingerprint, even though it was not registered.

This is shockingly trivial. Methods for bypassing Touch ID that involved etching a PCB generated alarmist headlines about it being “no challenge at all”; circumventing Face ID was said to be accomplished in “less than 120 seconds” — assuming, of course, that you were able to get a jerry-rigged pair of glasses onto the iPhone owner’s face without resistance.

This is nothing like that; it is exactly as easily-defeated as reported. That’s embarrassing, sure, but where Samsung really loses me is its explanation for why this is happening:

The issue can happen when patterns of some protectors that come with silicone phone cases are recognized along with fingerprints, the South Korean tech giant said in a notice on its customer support app.

I could be reading this wrong, but what I’m understanding is that Samsung is blaming the screen protector for introducing a pattern that appears to the sensor to be a fingerprint. But if that were the case, this flaw would only exist if fingerprint registration was completed with the screen protector in place.

However, according to a video from Twitter user StaLight, that must an inadequate explanation because the fingerprint reader can be bypassed after a fingerprint has been registered without a screen protector with Samsung’s own screen protective film, as clarified later. In this example, the user completes a registration process without a screen protector, then successfully unlocks the phone with a different finger after putting a clear phone case between the display and their finger.

I would love to know what this flaw is, and how a software update may apparently fix what seems, to me, to be a critical hardware problem.

The Galaxy S10 also has facial recognition, but that’s defeated by a photo.

Update: The patch has rolled out.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden Introduces National Privacy Act

Earlier this week, Michael Beckerman — the president of the Internet Association, a lobbying group that includes Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft among its members — got an op-ed published in the New York Times strongly objecting to state-level privacy laws:

A patchwork of state laws means that a California woman who orders an item from a Missouri business that manufactures in Florida could have her data regulated by three separate laws, or by no applicable law. Despite California’s Consumer Privacy Protection Act the state’s residents cannot be assured that the protections that apply when they deal with a business covered by the law will apply when they shop at their corner store, travel across the country or engage in online transactions with companies that are not subject to California’s privacy law.

Not only will this add to consumer confusion around how data is handled, it will also undoubtedly lead to inconsistent treatment of data depending on a variety of factors, including the residency of the consumer and the type of businesses with whom they interact.

Beckerman argued for a national privacy law, and that’s what Sen. Ron Wyden is introducing today. You can read the bill in full, and Wyden’s office has put together a one-and-a-bit page summary (PDF) of the highlights.

Dell Cameron, Gizmodo:

First off, the “Mind Your Own Business Act” would finally arm the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) with the power and personnel necessary to adequately punish out-of-control corporations. Companies would no longer simply get off with a warning the first time they break their users’ trust. Instead, they would face immediate fines of up 4 percent of their annual revenue. For companies the size of Google and Facebook, that means billions of dollars.

But here’s the kicker: Under the bill, executives who knowingly lie to the FTC about privacy violations could face up to 20 years behind bars, and their companies could then be forced to pay a tax based on the salary of the convicted executive.

I can’t imagine the successful passage of Wyden’s proposal to require companies to offer a paid version of their product or service that doesn’t track users, but I imagine the penalties able to be levied against privacy violations will be a deterrent.

Of course, this is extremely strict. It’s great for consumers. I bet the Internet Association is going to hate it.

It Currently Requires a Small Amount of Patience to Buy a New iPhone

Jason Koebler, in a Vice article bizarrely titled “It Is Currently Impossible to Exchange Money for an iPhone”. It’s bizarre because millions of people in the United States and around the world are buying new iPhones, often in exchange for money. But Koebler can’t buy a new iPhone — though, reading this, you’d imagine that it’s the last thing he wants to do:

I think that buying a new phone is a shameful but occasionally necessary activity to continue living in the modern world. I disagree with most of Apple’s corporate philosophies on recycling, repair, and its walled-garden, monopolistic approach to the App Store. I do not like spending time in Apple Stores, nor do I like giving the company money, but I appreciate Apple’s commitment to privacy and security, and my current phone is more than three years old, has been repaired three times, and no longer takes photos or connects to WiFi. It is, unfortunately, Time for a New Phone.

This is a weird way for one to convince themselves that they are not actually excited by technology and are resigned to the fact that they must exchange money for goods and services. I can imagine Koebler standing in a long line for brunch on a Sunday morning trying to convince himself that it’s an infuriating rip-off to pay twenty dollars for a halved English muffin with two poached eggs and some hollandaise overtop; and, instead of admitting that, yeah, it is actually kind of nice to indulge in this modicum of expensive joy every once in a while, he bashes out an article with the headline “It Is Currently Impossible to Exchange Money for Breakfast”.

Anyway:

The problem is that, at the moment, it is nearly impossible to exchange US currency for an iPhone 11 Pro.

Well that certainly narrows the vast scope that the headline suggests.

256GB iPhone 11 Pros (the objectively correct phone to buy, if you are going to buy a new iPhone) don’t ship until the end of the month if you order one online, and they’re sold out in stores all over the country according to the company’s website.

Oh, so it’s still not impossible, it just takes a couple of weeks? And this staggering level of impatience for a new product — that is, apparently, a reluctant purchase — is being displayed by the same guy who wrote and linked to an article in the previous paragraph about how you shouldn’t buy a new iPhone unless your old one is completely broken.

It’s fine to admit you like stuff and are excited by new things — even things from Apple. Nothing bad will happen to you; you will not be stuffed into a cannon and fired into the cloud hanging over Cupertino made of Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field.

Google Launches Pixel 4 Line and New Pixel Buds

Dieter Bohn of the Verge got to spend time with the new line of Google Pixel 4 phones and was particularly impressed with its new facial identification system:

I’ll admit, it was a little jarring. Every phone I’ve ever used had some sort of secondary action between picking up the phone and getting into it: a tap on a fingerprint sensor or a swipe on the screen. With the Pixel 4, it’s like there isn’t a lock screen at all because you almost never get a chance to see it.

I’ll have to do some actual timing in the review because it’s 100 percent possible that this speed is more perception than reality. The phone begins its unlock procedure before you even touch it, using that Motion Sense radar to detect you’re reaching for it. (More on that below.) It also feels faster because it jumps right into the last thing you were doing instead of requiring a second action with no animation that I could detect.

As facial recognition becomes faster on all phones, I wonder if today’s interpretation of the look and function of lock screens could effectively vanish.

The main thing Motion Sense does is pay attention to whether you’re even near the phone or if you’re reaching for it. If you walk away from it, it detects that and turns off the always-on display. If you reach for it, it activates the screen and face unlock.

Motion Sense lets you skip forward or back when music is playing, too. But the best feature is dismissing alarms and calls. When you simply reach for the phone, the volume drops when the phone sees your hand. Then you can simply wave to dismiss the call or snooze the alarm.

Without trying this feature — and I know that’s a big caveat — it sounds almost like the inverse of 3D Touch. And we all know how that experiment ended.

Google has clearly always wanted to do their own Android phones: they started with the Nexus One in 2010 and keep launching new ones every year. But they’ve never really been a big sales hit. These could be great phones, and will almost certainly be the best Android experience you can buy — primarily because the experience is unashamedly cribbed from the iPhone playbook. But, based on sales numbers, there just isn’t a huge market for people who want an iPhone that runs Android. People who want an iPhone buy an iPhone; people who want a premium Android phone seem to want it to be very different from an iPhone.

Google also launched a bunch of Google Home stuff today that doesn’t interest me, and a pair of earbuds that does. The old Pixel Buds were panned by reviewers, but the new ones ought to be better.

Victoria Song, Gizmodo:

Battery life is the same at five hours, though Google says they can last up to 24 hours with the wireless charging case. Sound-wise, they have dynamic volume adjusting depending on your environment. Google also emphasized they thought real hard about stuffing all those components into a new design — a video described them as “floating computers.” They’re not exactly noise-canceling; Google described them as “noise-isolating.” Basically, it’s got a small spatial vent to let in outside air. Supposedly that makes for a more comfortable Pixel Bud, but we’ll have to try them out for ourselves.

I love the sound of that dynamic volume adjustment feature. Every morning, I put my AirPods in and start listening to something while I’m waiting for the elevator; a couple of minutes later, I’m walking down a busy street and find myself reaching for the volume up button. And then, a few minutes after that, I turn onto a quieter side street and need to turn it back down a bit. What a great idea.

Unfortunately, while Google said today that these new Pixel Buds could do a lot of very cool new things, they won’t be shipping until next year and the demo models they showed to the press were non-functional.

Nevertheless, I’d love to try them, and one of these new Pixel phones.

Dan Seifert wrote a good piece in the Verge before today’s Google press event about the wireless earbud market:

While a few niche startups were first to put truly wireless headphones on the market, Apple really defined the scene with its 2016 release of the AirPods, showing what a good execution on the idea is like: reliable wireless connectivity, at least five hours of battery life, and a compact, easy-to-use charging case.

Since then, we’ve seen Samsung release several iterations of its own wireless earbuds before landing on a (mostly) working formula with this year’s Galaxy Buds. Many smaller companies, such as Jabra and Jaybird, have put out products that try to address the remaining AirPod faults, such as the lack of a customizable fit or poor sound blocking characteristics. Even Apple is selling multiple versions of truly wireless earbuds between the AirPods and its Beats brand.

It’s a crowded space. It’s also the category of tech products that, I think, comes closest to feeling futuristic today — especially with features like the new Announce Messages with Siri option coming in iOS 13.2.

Gig Services to Become More Costly As Investors Begin to Question Valuations

Derek Thompson, the Atlantic:

Several weeks ago, I met up with a friend in New York who suggested we grab a bite at a Scottish bar in the West Village. He had booked the table through something called Seated, a restaurant app that pays users who make reservations on the platform. We ordered two cocktails each, along with some food. And in exchange for the hard labor of drinking whiskey, the app awarded us $30 in credits redeemable at a variety of retailers.

I’ve read Seated’s guide for restaurants and a 2017 review and I still don’t understand how they’re able to offer a thirty percent money back reward for restaurant reservations booked through the app. It’s even more ridiculous than the Boost feature on Square’s Cash card, which only received compensation from a participating retailer earlier this year. It can’t possibly be paid for out of interchange fees, nor would any restaurant willingly refund a third of the cost of a menu item against already-slim profit margins.

Anyway — Thompson:

Starting about a decade ago, a fleet of well-known start-ups promised to change the way we work, work out, eat, shop, cook, commute, and sleep. These lifestyle-adjustment companies were so influential that wannabe entrepreneurs saw them as a template, flooding Silicon Valley with “Uber for X” pitches.

But as their promises soared, their profits didn’t. It’s easy to spend all day riding unicorns whose most magical property is their ability to combine high valuations with persistently negative earnings — something I’ve pointed out before. If you wake up on a Casper mattress, work out with a Peloton before breakfast, Uber to your desk at a WeWork, order DoorDash for lunch, take a Lyft home, and get dinner through Postmates, you’ve interacted with seven companies that will collectively lose nearly $14 billion this year. If you use Lime scooters to bop around the city, download Wag to walk your dog, and sign up for Blue Apron to make a meal, that’s three more brands that have never earned a dime or have seen their valuations fall by more than 50 percent.

These companies don’t give away cold hard cash as blatantly as Seated. But they’re not so different from the restaurant app. To maximize customer growth they have strategically — or at least “strategically” — throttled their prices, in effect providing a massive consumer subsidy. You might call it the Millennial Lifestyle Sponsorship, in which consumer tech companies, along with their venture-capital backers, help fund the daily habits of their disproportionately young and urban user base. With each Uber ride, WeWork membership, and hand-delivered dinner, the typical consumer has been getting a sweetheart deal.

It’s going to be a disaster if many of these arguably predatory businesses go bust: cities’ transportation networks will have to adjust, warranties won’t be honoured, and gig economy workers will be looking for jobs. When they raise their prices — even to a break-even point — we will all realize that these services are just as expensive as any traditional version of whatever they disrupted.

Canadian Telecom Lobbyists Influence Swedish Firm to Stop Including Canada in Worldwide Price Report

Anja Karadeglija, the Wire Report:

Tefficient, a Swedish consulting company that has released a number of telecom price reports highlighting Canada as one of the highest-priced jurisdictions for such services, will no longer be including the country in at least one future research report, The Wire Report has learned.

The “fact that the data is reported so late for Canada (and since none of the carriers report data traffic or usage) we aren’t too interested in incorporating Canada in our analyses going forward,” Fredrik Jungermann, founder of Tefficient, said in an email when asked about the company’s information on Canadian telecom pricing. He noted that was “primarily” the driver of that decision.

He said that “another reason is the workload created when lobbyists try to shoot down the credibility of the whole report because they don’t like to see Canada presented as an outlier. We have no business in Canada and have, unlike lobbyists, no agenda.”

Canadian cellular plans are among the highest in the world by an obscene margin. We pay more than those who live in any other developed country; this is something that multiple studies have confirmed for years. Everyone knows it, and the lobbyists for our major telecom providers want us to forget it.

Every Major U.S. Payment Processor Has Exited Facebook’s Libra Project

Russell Brandom, the Verge:

When Libra launched on June 18th, it seemed like an alarming new front in Facebook’s megalomaniacal expansion. Having captured billions of users and tens of billions of dollars in annual profits, the company would now be taking over currency itself. The company’s head of blockchain, David Marcus, laid out his plan for Libra in a detailed white paper, with some of the financial world’s most powerful companies already signed on to help govern the new currency as part of the Libra Association. It was Facebook’s vision for an international currency, and based on the company’s partners, it seemed unstoppable.

That was then. The first to ditch Libra was Paypal, which withdrew on October 4th. Then, over the course of a few hours on October 11th, Visa, Mastercard, Stripe and Mercado Pago all bailed on the project, with eBay tagging along for good measure. That meant every major US payment processor has exited the association. (The final remaining payment processor, PayU, has not responded to multiple requests for comment.) It’s an alarming turnaround for the Facebook-backed project, and the first clear indication that Libra’s founders may have bitten off more than they can chew.

Losing five companies in the span of a couple hours might seem like a panicked rush for the door, but the timing matters. On October 14th, all the founding members are set to convene in Geneva for the first ever Libra Council meeting. That’s where they will hammer out the different roles to be played by the different parties and try to answer all the governance questions that aren’t spelled out in the initial white paper. Ultimately, that will result in a formal charter, with each member signing their name to the new agreement.

A promising start.

China’s Powerful Marketplace Is Encouraging Studios to Succumb to Censorship

Alex Kantrowitz and John Paczkowski, Buzzfeed News:

In early 2018 as development on Apple’s slate of exclusive Apple TV+ programming was underway, the company’s leadership gave guidance to the creators of some of those shows to avoid portraying China in a poor light, BuzzFeed News has learned. Sources in position to know said the instruction was communicated by Eddy Cue, Apple’s SVP of internet software and services, and Morgan Wandell, its head of international content development. It was part of Apple’s ongoing efforts to remain in China’s good graces after a 2016 incident in which Beijing shut down Apple’s iBooks Store and iTunes Movies six months after they debuted in the country.

I think it’s important to be highly critical of efforts to succumb to the demands of an authoritarian state. But this is not a story about Apple’s practices, as the eighth paragraph of this article points out:

Apple’s tip toeing around the Chinese government isn’t unusual in Hollywood. It’s an accepted practice. “They all do it,” one showrunner who was not affiliated with Apple told BuzzFeed News. “They have to if they want to play in that market. And they all want to play in that market. Who wouldn’t?”

The bigger story here can be found in an article yesterday from Shane Savitsky in Axios:

While the U.S. reckons with the fact that China’s market power can stymie free speech after the NBA’s firestorm, Hollywood — America’s premier cultural exporter — has long willingly bent to Chinese censorship to rake in profits.

China is set to become the world’s biggest movie market in 2020, and with its 1.4 billion citizens, it won’t relinquish that title anytime soon. That means it’s key for Hollywood studios to do all they can to ensure that their tentpoles can pass the standards of the country’s strict censors.

This is a far greater cultural question to contend with. Films have been compromised for decades to meet specific MPAA ratings in the United States, but Chinese censors are even more unwelcoming:

Perhaps the most extreme example was the 2018 decision to not allow Disney’s “Christopher Robin” to be released, purportedly because Chinese President Xi Jinping’s resemblance to Winnie the Pooh had become a joke among activists who resisted the country’s Communist regime.

Ludicrous.

MacOS Catalina’s Teething Problems

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple rolled out Catalyst, the technology to transition iPad apps into Mac versions, on Monday. It’s the initial step toward a bigger goal: By 2021, developers should be able to build an app once and have it work on iPhones, iPads and Mac computers through a single, unified App Store. But the first iteration, which appears to still be quite raw and in a number of ways frustrating to developers, risks upsetting users who may have to pay again when they download the Mac version of an iPad app they’ve already bought.

From a user’s perspective, buying different apps on different platforms is the status quo; and, as the subscription model continues to grow in popularity, it makes little difference.

Gurman, continued:

Developers have found several problems with Apple’s tools for bringing iPad apps over to Mac computers. Some features that only make sense on iPad touchscreens, such as scrollable lists that help users select dates and times on calendars, are showing up on the Mac, where the input paradigm is still built around a keyboard and mouse or trackpad.

Troughton-Smith said Mac versions of some apps can’t hide the mouse cursor while video is playing. He’s also found problems with video recording and two-finger scrolling in some cases, along with issues with using the keyboard and full-screen mode in video games. Thomson, the PCalc developer, said some older Mac computers struggle to handle Catalyst apps that use another Apple system called SceneKit for 3-D gaming and animations.

Catalyst is a frustrating bridge between the entirely-discrete AppKit and UIKit worlds, and the ostensibly cross-platform SwiftUI model. It’s “frustrating” because apps built with it don’t feel like Mac apps, and it’s probably too early to start building with SwiftUI since it will likely change dramatically for developers over the next few years. It’s an awkward middle ground that isn’t as good as either. Apple’s promotion of it as “just a checkbox” in Xcode — and, weirdly, using that as part of its pitch to users — is overly optimistic.

That’s not to say that there are no good Catalyst apps. John Voorhees reviewed Lire for MacOS and was fairly impressed with its platform-specific customizations. But it’s a harder process than Apple promotes to developers, and I’m still not confident we’ll see truly great apps built with Catalyst.

Tyler Hall has compiled a list of bugs that he has run into so far:

I love the Mac and everything its software and hardware stand for. The iMac Pro and new Mac mini are phenomenal. The revamped Mac Pro (six years? really?) is a damn beast. And, honestly, I don’t even mind USB-C.

But the keyboards, the literally hundreds if not thousands of predatory scams on the Mac App Store, whatever the fuck is going on with Messages.app on macOS, iCloud Drive, the boneheaded, arrogant, literally-put-on-the-consumer-facing-marketing-website claim that iPad-to-Mac with Catalyst was merely a checkbox, all the dumb, stupid little bugs I mentioned above, and the truckload of other paper-cuts I’m sure to run into once I’m on Catalina for more than 48 hours…

My god.

It is absolutely clear that the Mac is far outside of what the upper-ranks of Apple is focusing on.

It is unsurprising to find bugs in an x.0 release of anything, but this post is maddening. The number and variety of bugs in iCloud-connected things is concerning when it displays error messages; it’s even worse when something silently fails.1

It’s not the fault of the engineers; it’s the fault of whichever parties have decided that software updates must ship annually. While I’m happy to see that they’re willing to delay features that aren’t ready, Apple’s operating system updates are promoted every June with features that may not ship for months after the initial release and the first versions are still full of absurd bugs. It feels chaotic and uncontrolled — like all middle managers for every organization are not on speaking terms.


  1. A quick aside that has little to do with Catalina but has everything to do with silent failure and bug reporting: I’ve written a couple of times about how the Home app simply doesn’t work for me on any device. It just displays a screen that says “Loading Accessories and Scenes” and has an infinitely-running spinner on it. There is no error message; there is no way to move past this.

    What’s supposed to happen, according to Apple, is that a button for resetting HomeKit should appear somewhere on that screen if you leave it open for half an hour. This is their official troubleshooting recommendation. I cannot possibly stress enough how absurd it is that someone decided that the best way to present a reset button is for a screen to be left on and running in the foreground for an entire episode of Last Week Tonight, and users should somehow expect to know that a button will emerge from an otherwise-empty space. It’s also silly that there’s no remedy for HomeKit errors anywhere between live with it and delete everything; why isn’t there a way to roll back to a known good configuration?

    Anyway, I’ve tried this several times on different devices across four versions of iOS — 10.0 through 13.2 — and in MacOS Mojave, and I’ve never seen this unicorn of a button.

    This wasn’t a big deal — I don’t have any HomeKit devices — until I updated to tvOS 13, which prompted me to add the device to my Home network. I tried; it failed, predictably. And I have an allergy to red notification dots in Settings. So I got in touch with Apple support. In the past two weeks, I’ve spoken on the phone for several hours, sent in a couple of sysdiagnose examples, and have repeatedly pointed out that this occurs on all of my devices, so it’s likely to be something iCloud related and all I want to do is start from scratch. I don’t blame the support representatives for their inability to fix this, but it is tedious and irritating that there is seemingly no way for me to fix this silently-presenting problem myself. ↩︎

The Transformation of Apple’s Deep Investment in China From Unique Advantage to Liability

Peter Kafka, Vox:

Plenty of US companies work in and with countries that require them to make moral compromises. Facebook, for instance, finds itself frequently pulling down videos and posts because they upset Turkey’s censors; Netflix took down an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act in Saudi Arabia because it was critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The standard argument these companies all make is that those countries are better off when they have access to their products.

This is Apple’s argument, too. “We believe our presence in China helps promote greater openness and facilitates the free flow of ideas and information,” Cook told Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in a December 2017 letter. “We are convinced that Apple can best promote fundamental rights, including the right of free expression, by being engaged even where we may disagree with a particular country’s law.”

Left unsaid in Cook’s letter is that Apple has to do business in China.

Unlike tech companies that haven’t broken into the country or only do minor business in it, Apple is now so deep in China that leaving it could be catastrophic. Even if the company was willing to forgo the $44 billion a year in sales it makes in China, it can’t leave the deep network of suppliers and assemblers that build hundreds of millions of iPhones every year.

Just a few months ago, Tim Cook denied that the company was exploring other places to build their products. The depth and extent of the electronics supply chain in China beggars belief — and, in one of those decades-old twists of fate, Cook helped make it so. There are loads of American tech companies that build products in China; Apple’s particular investment, though, is notable.

Tim Cook’s Internal Email Regarding the Removal of HKmap.live App

Tim Cook to Apple employees, as leaked to the app’s developer:

It is no secret that technology can be used for good or for ill. This case is no different. The app in question allowed for the crowdsourced reporting and mapping of police checkpoints, protest hotspots, and other information. On its own, this information is benign. […]

When the developer previously submitted the app to the App Store, it was rejected on the basis that the app “facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity that is not legal”. Presumably, that refers to its ability to locate police on a map. If it were “benign” — as Cook says and which I agree with — why was it rejected in the first place?

[…] However, over the past several days we received credible information, from the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau, as well as from users in Hong Kong, that the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present. This use put the app in violation of Hong Kong law. Similarly, widespread abuse clearly violates our App Store guidelines barring personal harm.

Maciej Cegłowski, who has been reporting on the protests from Hong Kong since August, says that this does not comport with what the app actually shows:

Moreover, what are these incidents where protesters have targeted individual police for a premeditated attack? Can Mr. Cook point to a single example? Can anyone?

When Hong Kong police have been in danger, it is invariably because they broke off in small groups into a sea of demonstrators and got separated from their colleagues. I witnessed this personally in Prince Edward on 9/2; many others have seen or videotaped similar situations.

So not only is there no evidence for this claim, but it goes against the documentary record of 18 weeks of protests, and is not even possible given the technical constraints of the app (which tracks groups of police).

Meanwhile, HKmap.live remains available on Google Play stores in Hong Kong and China. Google did remove a game that allows you to role-play as a protester at the behest of the Chinese government.

Stories From Uber and Lyft Drivers About Their Working Conditions and Pay

Hamilton Nolan, Splinter:

After a monumental political battle, California passed AB5, a law that will make it much harder for gig economy companies to classify their workers as “independent contractors.” Now, the same political battle is coming to New York. That means it’s a perfect time to hear from Uber and Lyft drivers, in their own words.

[…]

When California was considering its bill last month, we asked Uber and Lyft drivers, who are the most visible class of gig employees who would be directly affected by these changes, to email us and tell us about their working conditions. Hundreds did. As New York wrestles with the same questions, let’s hear from more of the people whose lives could be changed.

Given that drivers pay for fuel, increased-wear-and-tear on their vehicles, and insurance, this simply isn’t a very profitable enterprise for individuals — or, seemingly, the companies they work for. I’m also not convinced that it’s particularly effective as an occasional gig for people to pick up a little extra cash: if there’s a collision, an insurance company could deny coverage if the driver has typical auto insurance instead of commercial insurance, for example.

On a related and upsetting note, Splinter is shutting down. Nolan, the author of the linked piece about gig economy drivers, wrote a very relevant and thoughtful piece last year about private equity’s pitfalls.

Chinese State Media Accuses Apple of ‘Protecting Rioters’

Verna Yu, the Guardian:

The app HKmap.live, which crowdsources the location of police and anti-government protesters, was approved by Apple on 4 October and went on its App Store a day later, after the company reversed an earlier decision to reject the submission, according to an anonymous developer cited in the South China Morning Post. The app displays hotspots on a map of the city that is continuously updated as users report incidents, hence allowing protesters to avoid police.

The headline of the People’s Daily commentary carried by its official microblog on Wednesday said: “Protecting rioters – Has Apple thought clearly about this?”

It went on to say: “Allowing the ‘poisonous’ app to flourish is a betrayal of the Chinese people’s feelings.”

Someone in the Chinese government ought to familiarize themselves with the Streisand Effect — if Techdirt isn’t already blocked in the country.

Apple should absolutely not acquiesce to China’s demands. HKmap.live ought to remain in the App Store. But it is extraordinarily risky for Apple to resist an authoritarian force that controls the export and, therefore, sale of nearly every product they make.

Update: In an inauspicious development, John Keefe of Quartz says that Apple has succumbed to Chinese government pressure and pulled the publication’s app from the App Store in Hong Kong.

Update: Apple has removed HKmap.live from the App Store in Hong Kong. Shameful.

A Handful of Links and Thoughts Concerning the Future of Transportation

Over the weekend, I ended up reading several recent articles painting a fairly bleak picture of the middle-term future of transportation. I thought I’d stitch them together in a way that helps me — and, hopefully, you — see how they relate to each other. Let’s start with the bedrock of transportation in the United States and Canada: the personally-owned car.

Patrick George, Jalopnik:

The Wall Street Journal has a new story out that’s a kind of overview of something we’ve covered extensively around these parts — that super-long car loans, often with very high interest rates, are the new normal in car buying. And buyers are having a hell of a time keeping up. It means that car loans stick around well into when some of these models need pricey repairs, or past their original owners, and they eat into more and more of our incomes.

This is obviously concerning for owners who may not truly be able to afford lengthy car loans, it’s also likely to collapse in a situation reminiscent of the mid-2000s subprime mortgage crisis.

Making matters worse is that automakers like Ford and Mitsubishi are discontinuing sales of family cars in North America and focusing on SUVs and crossovers.1 These replacements are bigger, more expensive to buy, more expensive to run, and often more expensive to insure. They’re also more dangerous, both to the occupants and the people they crash into.

And, speaking of safety, Peter C. Baker of the Guardian wrote about a deadly decade for pedestrians:

In 2010, the small community of specialists who pay attention to US road safety statistics picked up the first signs of a troubling trend: more and more pedestrians were being killed on American roads. That year, 4,302 American pedestrians died, an increase of almost 5% from 2009. The tally has increased almost every year since, with particularly sharp spikes in 2015 and 2016. Last year, 41% more US pedestrians were killed than in 2008. During this same period, overall non-pedestrian road fatalities moved in the opposite direction, decreasing by more than 7%. For drivers, roads are as safe as they have ever been; for people on foot, roads keep getting deadlier.

[…]

Ask a room full of safety experts about smartphones and you will get a mix of resignation, bemusement and contempt. “I tend not to buy the smartphone distraction stuff,” says Garrick, echoing nearly identical comments from just about everyone I talked to. “To me, it reads as shoving aside actually dealing with the relevant issues.” What particularly bothers him, he says, is how poorly thought out the distraction discourse tends to be. In the UK, Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Austria and Iceland, for example, pedestrian deaths occur at a per capita rate roughly half of America’s, or lower. Are we really to believe that the citizens of these countries are 50% less susceptible than Americans to distraction, by their phones or anything else? Plus, within the US, pedestrian death occurs disproportionately in neighbourhoods populated by people with low-incomes and people of colour. Is distraction really more endemic in those neighbourhoods, or among people driving through them, than it is in wealthier, whiter areas? Or is it more likely that these neighbourhoods are more likely to be criss-crossed by high-speed roads, and less likely to receive investment in transit interventions that protect pedestrians?

Baker also touches on partly- and fully-autonomous vehicles as a panacea for automobile-related maladies:

Of course, in time-honoured Silicon Valley tradition, this simple profit motive was quickly swaddled in all manner of high-flying rhetoric about saving lives (of car users and pedestrians alike), saving cities and transforming transportation as we know it. “Every year that we delay this, more people die,” Anthony Levandowski, then of Google, told the New Yorker in 2013. At a 2016 press event, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, warned journalists who expressed doubts about self-driving cars – like the type that Tesla plans to sell – that they had blood on their hands. “If, in writing something that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using an autonomous vehicle, you’re killing people.”

“There is simply a very good business reason for car companies to sell people a future where everything is better, especially when the way to get there is by purchasing a lot of cars,” says Peter Norton, perhaps the most prominent historian of how Americans think about traffic safety. As Norton pointed out, car manufacturers have long made a practice of stoking consumer dissatisfaction, and yoking it to utopian visions of the future in which cars of the future solve problems created by cars of the present. “I don’t think there’s any chance that autonomous vehicles will deliver us a safe future, and I don’t necessarily think the companies think so either. I think they think we’ll buy a lot of stuff. The safe future will recede before our eyes like a desert mirage.”

It is notoriously stupid to try to predict the success of future technologies. As I’ve written before, I strongly suspect that truly autonomous vehicles are decades out. What a Tesla can do today is remarkable — if not quite road-worthy yet. Waymo’s answer is even better, of course. But I’ll be stunned if, in the next few years, a car can drive itself from, say, the parking garage in my building through the Rocky Mountains in wintertime to Lake Louise without human intervention. Part of the trip? Sure. But the whole way — a truly autonomous vehicle? I have doubts.

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that partially autonomous transport is solved soon for a limited set of uses. Something broader than fixed bus routes, and more along the lines of Waymo One, but for the rest of us. That would perhaps require us to purchase new cars equipped with expensive new technologies. Instead of owning these cars individually, though, we could share them with a Car2Go-esque service.2 Unfortunately, it’s hard to be optimistic about the success of something like that because Car2Go announced last month that they would be ending service in four big North American cities by the end of October, including Calgary. In its email to users, Car2Go blamed city policy, a poor economy, and increased competition. The first reason has been disputed by the city, the second is a possibility, and the third seems like a red herring — there are no competing car sharing services in Calgary, but we do have Uber, and it’s wildly popular.

Of course, “wildly popular” does not mean “a good business”. Car2Go said it was very popular in Calgary just last year. When it filed for its IPO earlier this year, Uber reported total losses of $7.9 billion between when it was founded in 2009 and the end of 2018. In the first quarter of 2019, they added another $1 billion to that tab; in the second quarter, they added a whopping $5.2 billion. Between 2009 and June 30 of this year, Uber has lost over $14.1 billion — an average of about $4 million per day, every day, for over ten years of operations. And those losses are overwhelmingly recent: in 2017, the company lost $2.2 billion; in 2018, $1.8 billion; in 2019, so far, $6.2 billion. All of that is without factoring in last month’s decision in California to classify drivers as employees instead of contractors, meaning that Uber will be obligated to pay minimum wage.

Is Uber a sustainable business over the long term? They are clearly planning to be, but they have to dig themselves out of a multibillion-dollar hole before we can sincerely have a discussion about the reasonableness of future viability. But if they, like Car2Go, are forced to retreat somewhat, it puts those who are reliant upon its services in a difficult position. Car sharing and ride sharing services mean that people may not need to own a car if they live in a moderately dense part of their city. They are a solution for the increasingly high financial and environmental cost of personal vehicle ownership.

But so is public transportation.

After reading all of these pieces and thinking this whole thing through, I keep winding up wondering what our cities would look like if we channeled the money we spend on Ubers and car sharing into public transit. What if venture capital firms funded trains and buses instead of autonomous vehicle startups? I recognize that’s not how venture capital firms operated because their incentive is in making money through risky betting — which is not necessarily the same thing as making cities better and safer to travel through. Public transportation also carries reduced risk for those who depend on it, as a public transit operator won’t simply end service in a city by giving a month’s notice and recalling all of its vehicles.

This is not an original argument, but it is one I was hounded by as I spent my weekend reading these articles.

As I wrote at the outset, this is a loose knitting-together of disparate strands of a complex conversation: what does transportation look like in cities of the future? Is it roads filled with individually-occupied privately-operated autonomous vehicles? I think it’s a fascinating technical puzzle and solution, but I’m struggling to find the practical appeal.


  1. As of writing, Mitsubishi still sells the Mirage in North America, but it’s rumoured to be replaced with a crossover of the same name↩︎

  2. This has been proposed by many people. I think a recent paper by Todd Litman (PDF) of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute compares different ownership schemes very well. ↩︎

Twitter Tries Being More Like Facebook

Makena Kelly, the Verge:

On Tuesday, Twitter announced that it “unintentionally” used phone numbers and email addresses for advertising purposes even though the information was provided by users for two-factor authentication.

According to Twitter, no personal data was shared with the company’s third-party partners, and the “issue that allowed this to occur” has been addressed. As of September 17th, phone numbers and email addresses are now only collected for security purposes, Twitter said.

Facebook acknowledged a similar issue earlier this year. Conveniently, I only need to swap company names in response:

This isn’t just yet another example of [Twitter] behaving outrageously when it comes to the company’s pathological need to slurp up everything about its users’ every living moment. It also has the potential to reduce the likelihood that users will adopt two-factor authentication. Technically-literate people have been preaching two-factor authentication for a long time, but average users have been slow to enable it; if they get the impression that it’s yet another piece of data that creepy companies can use to track them, they will be even more hesitant.

I’m starting to think that business models based on a relentless hoarding of personal details may need to be reconsidered.

The China Cultural Clash

Ben Thompson:

The biggest, shift, though, is a mindset one. First, the Internet is an amoral force that reduces friction, not an inevitable force for good. Second, sometimes different cultures simply have fundamentally different values. Third, if values are going to be preserved, they must be a leading factor in economic entanglement, not a trailing one. This is the point that Clinton got the most wrong: money, like tech, is amoral. If we insist it matters most our own morals will inevitably disappear.

In August, two hundred of the largest companies in the world pledged that shareholder value was no longer the primary motivation for their business. It’s time to prove it.

The Legal Case for Net Neutrality Increasingly Lacks Resemblance to Policy

Nilay Patel, the Verge:

Regardless of the legal history, it really does seems obvious to most people that broadband internet access is a telecommunications service that should be neutral. In this case, Ajit Pai and the FCC made the argument that broadband is actually an “information service” because access is paired with… DNS and caching services. That’s DNS, as in the domain name lookup servers that translate domain names to IP addresses, and caching services that host copies of data closer to your location to speed up your access.

Not email, not some wacky AOL chat room. DNS and caching. And because that argument worked in the 2005 Brand X case, the court in 2019 was obligated to say the FCC could use the same argument again.

[…]

The court next addresses whether mobile broadband is a “commercial mobile service,” which is the wireless version of a telecommunications service, or a “private mobile service,” which is the analogue to an information service. I will spare you the details of the long, long discussion that follows, except to say the state of telecom law in 2019 is such that the court winds up making its decision based on the fact that smart washing machines cannot make phone calls.

There is overwhelming support across all sectors of the American public for ISPs to be treated as utility providers. Every renter knows that internet service is listed under a Utilities heading in the lease agreement. Even ISPs call themselves utilities when they benefit, but argue the opposite when they would be treated to similar regulatory oversight.

Broadband is a utility. Everyone knows it; ISPs know it, too. They just don’t want it to be treated as such because they would have to compete on speed and price instead of lacklustre incentives and anti-competitive policies. It’s time to regulate it as such.

Facebook Changes Policies to Allow Advertisers to Lie

Judd Legum in his Popular Information newsletter:1

Prior to last week, Facebook had a rule against running any ads with “false and misleading” content: “Ads, landing pages, and business practices must not contain deceptive, false, or misleading content, including deceptive claims, offers, or methods.”

But today, category 13 of prohibited content has been narrowed significantly. Now, Facebook only “prohibits ads that include claims debunked by third-party fact checkers or, in certain circumstances, claims debunked by organizations with particular expertise.”

The old rules prohibited all ads that contained “false” and “misleading” content and made no mention of the fact-checking program. The new rules are limited to claims that are “debunked by third-party fact checkers.”

Moreover, Facebook says “political figures” are exempt from even that narrow restriction.

Not too long ago, Facebook bragged on its advertising case studies page about how effective their ads were for political campaigns. Last year, however, the company hid that category as it publicly pretend that it couldn’t possibly influence an election. And those ads were supposed to be factual. What happens when notoriously unscrupulous leaders are able to exploit highly-targeted creepy advertising to lie to people directly with the support of Facebook’s policies?


  1. This webpage is horrible and I’m sorry to subject readers to it. Click “let me read it first” to dismiss the full-page subscription screen. ↩︎

One Year After ‘The Big Hack’

Today marks the one-year anniversary of Bloomberg’s publication of a story about Chinese intelligence intercepting the supply chain of Supermicro, a company which has built and sold servers to Amazon, Apple, the U.S. Department of Defense, and dozens of other companies. Apparently, they developed a chip that looked identical to a rice-sized standard component placed along the main power lines of a server; the implanted chip ostensibly contained a processor and networking capabilities and could, theoretically, act as a backdoor for Supermicro servers.

It sounded like the information security scoop of the decade — except there’s virtually no proof that any of it is true.

At the time of the story’s publication, representatives from the named companies denied Bloomberg’s reporting in statements that left virtually no wiggle room. Tim Cook called for the story’s retraction — a call that was soon echoed by Amazon and Supermicro. Michael Riley — who reported the story alongside Jordan Robertson — took to Twitter on October 5 to point out that the physical evidence would make it “hard to keep more [details] from emerging”.

So far, that has not happened.

On October 9, the duo published a followup story claiming that backdoor hardware was found on a Supermicro server belonging to a telecom firm. Their report relied on documents provided by Yossi Appleboum who subsequently argued in an interview with ServeTheHome that Bloomberg’s characterization was incorrect. Appleboum claimed that the problem is broader than Supermicro and the entire supply chain in China was compromised; however, no evidence was provided publicly to support his assertions.

And that was pretty much the last update we heard from Bloomberg’s reporters regarding this important information security scoop. Michael Riley published just one story between October 9, 2018 and August 31, 2019; Jordan Robertson reported nothing for Bloomberg until September 2, 2019. Given an entire year to dig around on this huge story, no other publication has been able to independently verify their claims.

Here’s every significant development I can find from the past year:

  • At the end of October last year, Erik Wemple of the Washington Post reported that the then-Director of National Intelligence — the turnover in this administration is wild — and an NSA official had no evidence to support Riley and Robertson’s story.

  • In November, Wemple wrote about Bloomberg’s continued reporting efforts. An investigative reporter who wasn’t part of the team behind the original “Big Hack” pieces emailed Apple employees to try to figure out what was right and what was wrong. In conversations with Wemple, Apple employees disputed everything about the story and subsequent rumours about internal Apple investigations.

  • In December, Supermicro announced that a third-party investigator had found “no evidence of any malicious hardware”.

  • In April, Wemple reported that Bloomberg submitted the story for a National Magazine Award. It was not a finalist.

  • In August, the story received Pwnie awards for the Most Over-Hyped Bug and the Most Epic Fail at Black Hat.

  • Last month, a vulnerability was discovered in Supermicro servers that would allow remote USB access. It was patched the following day.

  • Also last month, Michael Riley got promoted. Congratulations.

Unfortunately, a year later, we’re still no closer to understanding what happened with this story. Bloomberg still stands by it, but hasn’t published a follow-up story from its additional reporting. No other news organization has corroborated the original story in any capacity. After being annihilated after the story’s publication, Supermicro’s stock has bounced back.

Most upsetting is that we don’t know the truth here in any capacity. We don’t know how the story was sourced originally other than the vague descriptions given about their roles and knowledge. We don’t know what assumptions were made as Riley and Robertson almost never quoted their sources. We don’t know anything about the thirty additional companies — aside from Amazon and Apple — that were apparently affected, nor if any of the other nine hundred customers of Supermicro found malicious hardware. We don’t know what role, if any, Bloomberg’s financial services business played in the sourcing and publication of this story, since they were also users of Supermicro servers. We don’t know the truth of what is either the greatest information security scoop of the decade or the biggest reporting fuck-up of its type.

What does that say about Bloomberg’s integrity?

FCC’s ’Unhinged‘ Net Neutrality Repeal Was Upheld Because ISPs Offer DNS and Caching

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

To defend the reclassification, the FCC had to explain why broadband fits the federal definition of “information service” and not the federal definition of “telecommunications service.” Under US law, telecommunications is defined as “the transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received.”

That sounds like what broadband companies provide, but the FCC claims that broadband isn’t telecommunications because Internet providers also offer DNS (Domain Name System) services and caching as part of the broadband package. According to the FCC, the offering of DNS and caching makes broadband an information service, which is defined under US law as “the offering of a capability for generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing, or making available information via telecommunications.”

Judges reluctantly ruled that the FCC made a permissible reading of the statute.

The preceding case that allows internet connectivity to be classified as information services in no way resembles the way broadband is actually used by consumers, nor is it a reasonable interpretation of the function of DNS and caching services. Precedent says that the judge’s decision is not incorrect, but the law is — as ever — outdated and fundamentally broken when it comes to interpreting newer technologies.

Bloomberg: Apple Is Reviewing Rejection of App That Allows Users to Track Protests in Hong Kong

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple Inc.’s App Store is reviewing a recent decision to reject a Hong Kong app designed to track police activity in the midst of increasingly violent pro-democracy protests in the city.

The app, known as HKmap.live, is a mobile version of a website that helps users avoid potentially dangerous areas, according to the developer, who uses the alias Kuma to remain anonymous. It was rejected from Apple’s App Store because it “facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity that is not legal,” Apple told the developer, according to a copy of the rejection notice seen by Bloomberg News. “Specifically, the app allowed users to evade law enforcement,” Apple wrote.

At this stage, it seems just as likely to me that this rejection was due to an App Review failure as it was a way to appease the Chinese government. Either way, it’s a problem of Apple’s own creation.

If it’s the former, it just goes to show how accurate App Review needs to be, and the gaping chasm between where it is now and where it ought to be. Facebook and Twitter take flak for moderation failures1 on their platforms; Apple’s equivalent is in App Store mistakes. Apps that abuse subscriptions sail through App Review, but this gets summarily blocked? Nonsense.

But if it’s deliberate, it suggests a far worse situation. The reason Apple gave for preventing HKmap.live from being available in the App Store is that it “allowed users to evade law enforcement”. But that’s not its sole purpose:

The developer said the app is built to “show events happening” in Hong Kong, but what users choose to do with that information is their choice. “We don’t encourage any advice on the map in general,” the developer told Bloomberg News. “Our ultimate goal is safety for everyone.”

Plenty of apps could be illegitimately accused of the same thing. As Jane Manchun Wong noted on Twitter, Waze is still available in the App Store, despite alerting users of speed traps and DUI checkpoints. Meanwhile, law enforcement has been complaining that encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Apple’s own Messages app prevent interception. There are even “vault” calculator apps that are explicitly designed to secrete user data.

What it suggests, then, is that Apple is perhaps complying with oppressive Chinese laws that restrict protestor activity in the “second system” separately-governed region of Hong Kong. This isn’t the first time that Apple has made a decision that gives the appearance of appeasing an authoritarian government that’s important to the company for its sales and manufacturing.

Let’s hope it’s App Review being its unduly sensitive, mistake-ridden self. The other option is unconscionable.

Update: Apple has now approved HKmap.live.


  1. A fun one from today comes to mind. ↩︎

Jesus Diaz Writes the Inevitable Article About Microsoft’s Apple-Beating Though Not-Yet-Shipping Innovation

Jesus Diaz — sigh — writing at Tom’s Guide:

Yesterday, as I finished watching Microsoft’s presentation on my iPad Pro, I thought that Redmond had crushed its old archnemesis in just half an hour. The Surface Neo and the Surface Duo made me think that Microsoft is now the king of innovation and industrial design. They have beaten Apple at its own game.

This take — that future Microsoft products beat current Apple products — is so trite that you can search the Macalope’s default quip, which I stole for the aside in this paragraph, and get eleven years’ worth of uses.

It’s even a cliché for Diaz: he previously said that Mountain Lion was out-innovated by Windows 8, and that the then-not-yet-shipping Surface “made the MacBook Air and iPad look obsolete”. And, like the 2008 article in which the Macalope coined its “future Microsoft products” line, Diaz also claimed that Windows Phone 7 beat iOS in a piece published eight months before the first Windows Phone would ship.

That was easy.

Media Relations Firms Are Faking Public Policy Comments With Personal Details From Data Breaches

An impressive investigation by Jeremy Singer-Vine and Kevin Collier of Buzzfeed News:

A BuzzFeed News investigation — based on an analysis of millions of comments, along with court records, business filings, and interviews with dozens of people — offers a window into how a crucial democratic process was skewed by one of the most prolific uses of political impersonation in US history. In a key part of the puzzle, two little-known firms, Media Bridge and LCX Digital, working on behalf of industry group Broadband for America, misappropriated names and personal information as part of a bid to submit more than 1.5 million statements favorable to their cause.

The FCC proceeding is not the only public debate to have been compromised. BuzzFeed News also found that LCX, an obscure advertising agency based in Southern California, has worked on at least two other campaigns that raised similar impersonation allegations — issues that were so alarming that state legislators in South Carolina and Texas referred the matters to law enforcement. Media Bridge, a political consultancy based in Virginia, also participated in the South Carolina campaign.

Buzzfeed correlated nearly two million formulaic comments submitted by Media Bridge with identifying details from a 2016 database provider breach. Several of the comments are attributed to people who either did not support the repeal of Obama-era FCC Title II classification — like, say, Barack Obama himself — or were dead at the time “they” commented.

These findings are similar to those published by Gizmodo earlier this year, but this is the most concentrated and attributable data set that has been reported so far.

There clearly needs to be a way for the public to provide feedback on policy proposals, but this is so ineffective as to be meaningless. A Stanford University study found that non-bot comments overwhelmingly favoured Title II classification (PDF), but the researchers behind that proposal were only able to say that about 646,000 of the 22 million comments submitted were unique. And even if a comment was unique, it didn’t matter because the FCC ignored all comments unless they articulated a legal argument.

The system in place right now is basically the comments section at the end of a news article, except it’s supposed to provide influence over policy — but it doesn’t, unless you’re well-versed in law and can make a counterargument on those terms. Oh, and comments obviously submitted in bulk are not screened or rejected, so organizations can flood a proposal with countering form letters that do nothing to enable discussion.

Like all comments sections, it should be scrapped.

Microsoft Announces New Surface Products, Including Dual-Screened Devices for End of Next Year

Panos Panay of Microsoft:

Today in New York we announced our broadest Surface lineup ever – with five new products coming this holiday and two new dual-screen devices, Surface Neo and Surface Duo, coming in Holiday 2020.

As far as I can tell, the updates Microsoft announced today have been well-received by those who know their products well. The Surface line has, generally, seemed very successful — I see them all the time when I’m in coffee shops or at the library.

But there were still traces of the old Microsoft during today’s announcements which became most obvious when they introduced the Surface Neo and Surface Duo — two products that, while intriguing, won’t be available until the end of next year. Why show them now?

Lauren Goode of Wired got to interview Panay and Satya Nadella at Microsoft’s headquarters last week. There isn’t a rationale in her report of why these products are being shown over a year before anyone can buy them; the closest she gets is explaining that Panay can’t talk about where the camera is going to be because it might give competitors ideas. The piece starts with this strange request:

No matter what you do, do not call the new Surface phone a phone. You can call it a Surface, a mobile product, a dual-screen device, a new kind of 2-in-1, a pathway to the all-important cloud. But Panos Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer, doesn’t want you to call it a phone.

Never mind that the thing slips in and out of the pocket of Panay’s salt-and-pepper tweed blazer exactly the way a smartphone would. Or that one of the earliest scenes in the marketing video for the thing, with its slow, fetishized swirls of the gadget, shows a woman picking it up to her ear and saying “Hello?” the way you would with, well, you know. Or that Panay himself admits he makes what are universally known as a “phone calls” from it.

A few companies have weird stylistic conventions, but people are gonna call this phone-sized, phone-shaped product that has general phone functionality a “phone”.

That phone, by the way, runs Android, and it speaks to the company’s radical transformation since the Steve Ballmer era that this is how Satya Nadella responded when Goode asked if the company would ever make another Windows-based phone:

Later on I ask Nadella the same question, and he zooms out even further. “The operating system is no longer the most important layer for us,” he says. “What is most important for us is the app model and the experience. How people are going to write apps for Duo and Neo will have a lot more to do with each other than just writing a Windows app or an Android app, because it’s going to be about the Microsoft graph.”

Could you imagine a previous Microsoft CEO saying that they do not consider the operating system nearly as important as the app ecosystem?

Regardless of how bizarre it is that these devices were introduced a year out, I’m fascinated by the Surface Neo. I’ve always liked the Microsoft Courier, especially some of its weirder UI ideas that leaned heavily on maximizing its book-like form. I’m not sure how any of this stuff will translate into real life — the marketing video doesn’t give a good impression and neither do the hands-on videos I’ve seen — but it’s interesting, and I dig that.

Appeal Court Upholds Repeal of Net Neutrality Laws, but Permits States to Set Their Own Rules

Adi Robertson, the Verge:

The court said the FCC exhibited “disregard of its duty” to evaluate how its rule change would affect public safety. Public safety was a key issue in a hearing earlier this year, with net neutrality advocates arguing that the FCC’s decision let ISPs throttle first responders’ data — something that happened in California last year. “The harms from blocking and throttling during a public safety emergency are irreparable. People could be injured or die,” reads the ruling, which orders the FCC to address these safety concerns.

The FCC also didn’t sufficiently explain what the rules would mean for utility pole access — which can make it easier for new competitors to set up internet service networks — and didn’t address concerns about how the change would affect the Lifeline internet access program for low-income Americans.

And most notably, the court vacated a section of the rules that let the FCC preempt any stricter state net neutrality laws. The FCC has previously filed suit against states that passed their own net neutrality rules.

The court was not persuaded of the wrongness of the FCC’s arguments that Title II classification suppressed ISP investment; you can read their ruling on those claims starting on page 74. However, several studies have found no evidence to support reduced ISP investment in broadband. The court’s ruling today did not explicitly support the FCC’s position — coincidentally, I’m sure, the same as that of ISPs — only finding that it was “reasonable” for them to argue that. Which, well, sure. But it certainly isn’t borne out by the evidence so far.

Tesla Releases Smart Summon Feature in Software Update

After delays, Tesla released a software update last week that includes the Smart Summon feature which, supposedly, allows the driver to summon their once-parked car to their present location. In the real world, it is having some issues.

Jason Torchinsky, Jalopnik:

The Version 10 release notes for Smart Summon do state that

“You are still responsible for your car and must monitor it and its surroundings at all times.”

which is, of course, true, but this is still a completely unprecedented use of a car, for better or worse. On the plus side, sure, it’s great for impressing people and not getting wet in the rain or having to walk to your car, possibly with a bunch of heavy crap, but at the same time, when has it ever been okay to attempt to be “in control” of your car from potentially across a parking lot?

There’s plenty of cases where Smart Summon has worked just fine. And yes, people do stupid shit in parking lots every day. Tesla does specify that it’s a Beta release, which is fine for most software, but does it make sense when that software is driving a full-sized car in a public space?

The collisions that have been reported so far have all been property damage, either to the Tesla or to whatever it hit. I haven’t seen any reports of pedestrians either getting hit or nearly so. I suppose that’s the silver lining to this story: in the four days since the software started rolling out, nobody has been injured or killed.

It does raise questions about whether it’s fair for Tesla to use developer-centric terms like “beta” as cover for software that it is not fully confident is complete and safe — I do not think that’s okay. Tesla, in particular, has historically exaggerated the capabilities of its autonomous software while simultaneously tacking “beta” onto the end of several of its features. Plenty of people were upset with iCloud’s myriad problems in the beta releases of iOS 13. Those problems are solely relegated to the user’s own files, however; they are not a matter of public safety.

Study Indicates the FCC’s Core Justification for Killing Net Neutrality Was False

Karl Bode, Vice:

“Under the heavy-handed regulations adopted by the prior Commission in 2015, network investment declined for two straight years, the first time that had happened outside of a recession in the broadband era,” [Ajit] Pai told Congress last year at an oversight hearing.

“We now have a regulatory framework in place that is encouraging the private sector to make the investments necessary to bring better, faster, and cheaper broadband to more Americans,” Pai proclaimed.

But a new study from George Washington University indicates that Pai’s claims were patently false. The study took a closer look at the earnings reports and SEC filings of 8,577 unique companies from Q1 2009 through Q3 2018 to conclude that the passage and repeal of the rules had no meaningful impact on broadband investment. Several hundred of these were telecom companies.

“The results of the paper are clear and should be both unsurprising and uncontroversial,” The researchers said. “The key finding is there were no impacts on telecommunication industry investment from the net neutrality policy changes. Neither the 2010 or 2015 US net neutrality rule changes had any causal impact on telecommunications investment.”

We knew this. We knew it before Pai rolled back net neutrality regulations. But it bears repeating that he made law by amplifying the cable industry’s lies, leading to abuses of power from an increasingly-concentrated media and telecom industry.

Art in the Age of Digital Subscription

Maddy Myers, Kotaku:

I feel like I actually have started to devalue a lot of pieces of media in ways that I didn’t do when I was growing up in the ’90s. I used to go to Blockbuster and spend a couple of bucks on renting a movie. But nowadays, I don’t want to spend 5 dollars on “renting” a movie from iTunes. I just don’t. I’d rather watch a different movie on a subscription service that I pay for than pay not that much more money to rent a movie. Why is that? That’s interesting. That’s clearly a mental change in me that I’ve observed.

Matt Birchler:

This resonates with me a ton. There is more amazing content out there today that ever before, whether it be video games or movies or TV shows, but I think I cherish less of it than I used to. As a consumer, streaming music is an incredible deal. I get to listen to basically every song ever made, everything new this week, and everything coming out in the future for $9.99 per month. That’s less than buying a single album every month, which is just insane.

But while this is wonderful, I do get the feeling that I appreciate individual things less. Spending $15 on an album meant I was invested in giving it a serious listen. Now it costs me what feels like nothing to hear everything and it’s super easy to bounce off albums and try something else. Again, this could be considered a benefit as I keep seeking out the best things, but I find I know fewer albums from start to finish than before streaming.

I empathize with both Myers’ and Birchler’s perspectives, but I feel a little differently about this when it comes to music.

To generalize, most people like music, a few monsters actively dislike the entire idea of it, and some people love everything about music to the point where it’s obsessive. I’m in the latter category. There are few genres I don’t listen to, and nothing I won’t take a chance on. I hoard records — physical and digital, alike.

If you also love music and have somewhat flexible morals, you’re probably familiar with early 2000s music blogs. You could visit these sites, often hosted on Blogspot, multiple times every day and discover something unfamiliar. It could be a brand new record, a classic album you recognize but never listened to, a deep cut from an artist you’ve heard of, or something in a language you don’t understand. On every post, there would be a Rapidshare link for you to download the full record — just below a reminder to pay for the album.

Of course, this is morally- and legally-dubious. I’m not going to defend that. However, they were also remarkably well-curated places to discover bands and artists you’d likely never find on your own. And, of course, free downloads meant that there was no risk to trying something unexpected. Again, I offer no counterargument to depriving artists of earnings, except to note that multiple studies suggest that people who download music illegally also tend to buy the most music. That’s probably because these people are simply the biggest fans of music and want to listen to as much of it as they possibly can.

Streaming services allow the same kind of risk-free exploration without the guilt and legal jeopardy of music blogs. You can still use music blogs and other discovery mechanisms to find new music, but you can listen to it with Apple Music or Spotify instead.

One more thing: I’ve never found CDs or cassette tapes to be particularly valued ways of listening to music. CDs, in particular, are a brittle delivery mechanism for music that sounds basically the same as what you’d get from iTunes. This is only a smidge less corny than talking about the warmth of vinyl and the way it friggin breathes; but, for me, a vinyl record is a fantastic way of expressing the personal value of an album.

There’s a great piece of writing at the top of the Nine Inch Nails online store that mirrors my thoughts in hard-to-read small uppercase text:

Vinyl has returned to being a priority for us – not just for the warmth of the sound, but the interaction it demands from the listener. The canvas of artwork, the weight of the record, the smell of the vinyl, the dropping of the needle, the difficulty of skipping tracks, the changing of sides, the secrets hidden within, and having a physical object that exists in the real world with you… all part of the experience and magic.

I get why this makes people roll their eyes, but it’s exactly how I feel. Putting on a record is a completely different experience. It’s more whole, somehow; more fulfilling.

An Apple Music subscription and a turntable — that’s how I listen to music. And I feel like I value music no less than when I was buying CDs every week.1


  1. I was trying to find a link for this piece and I stumbled across a 1995 issue of Billboard in which Ed Christman argues that CD subscription clubs were devaluing music. ↩︎