Written by Nick Heer.

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Now We Are Cooking Without Gas

I promise this has something to do with computers, software, and my usual jibber-jabber, but I want to talk about cooking. And before I get to that, I need to preface this by acknowledging my use of an unfortunate premise: stoves. I started writing this in September, well before this became a bizarre and fracturing issue. A better writer would have canned the whole thing or found a better metaphor; instead, I procrastinated until that particular culture war fizzled out. Enough throat clearing.

We recently bought a new range for our kitchen which, as it turns out, is a dizzying task. I would have preferred an induction model, but nearly all of them have capacitive touch controls which are terrible — worse than physical knobs in almost every way. I just want to turn a dial to change the temperature, not poke at a barely responsive slab of glass. And we thought we had done it: we thought we had found the sole perfect induction model in the showroom. But it turned out to be a standard electric stove. Oh, well; put it on the truck, I guess.

In my heart of hearts, what I really wanted was a gas stove. Unfortunately and tautologically, they are fuelled by flammable gas which, when burned, releases toxic fumes into a home. This can be mitigated by having a venthood that properly exhausts fumes to the outdoors, which I do not have, but if I did I would need to face the guilt and self-flagellation for adding to the consumption of petroleum products when I know better. I do not want a gas stove in this form, but I do want the effect of one in my kitchen. I want to cook with fire.

At its core, a gas stove is a fantastically simple invention. A combustible material is fed in, it is set alight, and a valve in the middle controls how big the flame is. This sounds imprecise in the sense that it is difficult to hit a specific heat output, but it offers a unique level of control to the cook. It rarely matters exactly how many thermal units are being produced so long as you can change that factor quickly. Perhaps as important, fire can make food taste different. You can toast items directly on the iron grate. When you toss food in the pan, it gets kissed by the flame, burning sugars and oils and alcohol. In Cantonese and with the assistance of enough heat, it is known as wok hei, though achieving this requires a more powerful burner than most home stovetops can produce. But it cannot happen without fire.

An induction stove offers much of the same level of control and is a triumph of efficiency. Instead of placing a heat source near the pan’s base, the electromagnetic field in each “burner” causes the pan itself to get hot. It offers the best conversion of energy to cookery of any stovetop type and provides just as much control as a gas burner. It produces no excess heat; the only reason the cooktop’s surface would be warmed is from the heat absorbed by and reflected off the pan. It is a more intelligent, more future-forward way of cooking.

But I still want fire. There is something alluring about that simplicity — something primal. It sparks something inside me that makes anything electric feel sterile. Yes, the cooktops are doing the same job, but not in the same way.

There are a handful of logical arguments for preferring a gas cooktop over electric, and the degree to which they matter will vary from person to person. But, for what it is worth, I have used an electric stovetop all my life and have learned how to compensate for its unique qualities, even as something of an enthusiastic home cook. I often use a wok, toast tortillas in a cast iron pan, and roast peppers under the broiler instead of directly against a flame. It is not exactly the same, of course, but nor is it so different that it is ruinous to whatever I am cooking. That may be different for you. Food is deeply personal and, for me, it is about maximizing what I have and not trying to always hit a goal of being the best of something, which I have long regarded as unobtainable.

Many of the reasons people prefer a gas cooktop seem more emotional than logical. I am certainly in that camp — just look at most of the arguments I am making above. It is exciting to work with fire; it makes you feel like more of a chef, even if all you are doing is boiling an egg. When Alec Watson — of the delightful Technology Connections YouTube channel — replaced his gas stove with an electric model, he found the electric one often boils water faster than the unit he replaced, but it feels slower. “When you turn on a gas stove,” Watson says, you get the “tick-tick-tick whoomph, and you get a flame, and you can see and hear that flame”. An electric stove has a glowing red visual clue that something is happening, while an induction burner shows almost nothing. There is no palpable excitement in this kind of efficiency. And I do think that is a problem.

I do not think we should dismiss emotional arguments out of hand. It seems obvious to prefer rational arguments rooted in facts and logic, but our enjoyment of using something often comes just as much from how good it feels as how well it works. That applies to stoves, but it is increasingly true across the board, for almost anything you can think of.

I promised earlier to relate this to computers; thank you for sticking with me. In an infamous 2011 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, venture capitalist and Mosaic browser inventor Marc Andresseen observed that “software is eating the world”:

More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services—from movies to agriculture to national defense. Many of the winners are Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial technology companies that are invading and overturning established industry structures. Over the next 10 years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.

Twelve years later, Andresseen’s forecast seems more true than ever and, also, a little bit like a threat. Not because of how unreliable and frustrating software often is — at least, not solely for that reason — but because electronic things often feel inferior despite their manifold advantages. For as clever as the world is becoming, it can also be unsatisfying.

It does not have to be.

Unfortunately, explaining how is difficult as what we find delightful is wholly subjective. You may have reached this part of the article entirely disagreeing with what I have written so far. Maybe you find something charming about a stovetop that somehow heats pans but not the surface using magnets. But that efficiency leaves me cold, in much the same way as compact discs are less delightful than vinyl records despite being more accurate reproductions of the source audio.

Sometimes, a sense of charm comes in the form of the old, the familiar, and the nostalgic. Consider the common practice of mimicking film in most movies shot digitally, or analogue audio effects like crackle and tape warp in some new music. In real estate listings, older houses with original details are marketed as “character homes”.

All of this can make it seem as though careful and precise engineering is the opposite of delight, but that would be an oversimplification and, arguably, untrue. When Ferdinand Piëch ran the Volkswagen Group, he pushed for some radically over-engineered models, any of which would elicit excited giggles from a mechanically inclined person. If you want to get a little upmarket, there is true joy in using a perfectly assembled Leica for even the simplest photograph, an image which will have a finesse unlike anything else. The key difference, I think, is that efficiency and precision must be in the service of something more visceral. I think one moment from the introduction of the Apple Watch is a good example of where that was not successful.

Tim Cook:

We set out to make the best watch in the world — one that is precise. It is synchronized with the Universal Time Standard. It’s accurate within plus or minus 50 milliseconds.

Wow, that sure sounds great. So why has it felt underwhelming every time I have seen that clip? I think John Gruber’s explanation gets to the heart of the matter:

The funny thing about this marketing angle is that it rings utterly hollow to serious watch people. $30 quartz watches generally keep very accurate time — much more accurately than mechanical watches that cost tens of thousands of dollars. The gold standard for quality watch movements is COSC certification — a series of tests administered by the Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute. To be COSC-certified, a mechanical watch need be accurate only to -4/+6 seconds per day. Apple is advertising Apple Watch as being accurate to 5 hundredths of a second. Accuracy isn’t even close to the primary appeal for mechanical watch aficionados.

Gruber also points out that very precise clocks are not new to computers, either.

I am not in the right tax bracket to be a serious watch person — incidentally, this seems like a good time to plug my Patreon — but this is a good explanation of why precision for precision’s sake is not very interesting in a wholly computerized era. Improving the accuracy of a mechanical watch requires precise craft which is as artful as it is obsessive. This is subjective, but the story behind Network Time Protocol is not as compelling. This is not a money thing, either: while mechanical watches are often a signifier of wealth, it is hard to imagine the timekeeping apps on an Apple Watch being more interesting than a the springs and gears of a mechanical movement regardless of its price.

The watch is just one product categories in which mechanical versions, once dominant, are now a niche. Everything is a computer; the Andresseen Doctrine has comfortably won. But that does not mean we must cede the emotionally powerful qualities of these objects to cold, raw efficiency. Digital does not necessarily mean boring. Apparently, younger people are discovering the joy of older cameras, saying they have “a layer of personality” not present in phone cameras. A smartphone is more like an appliance; a point-and-shoot is a tool for creativity.

This is not a veneer. It is a more important quality than it seems. For all we focus on products’ utility, I wish there was as much consideration given to how they feel — to the emotional connection they create. I, for one, do not want to live in a world dominated by appliances. I want to love the things I use, and I am sure I am not alone. Do not get me wrong: I appreciate so many of these things; they are brilliant in ways I can barely comprehend. But clever is not a substitute for soul. Too many of the products and services I use feel more advanced and less compelling than those of, say, ten or twenty years ago. We should find that quality again.

Congratulations, Gen Z: You Are the New Societal Scapegoat for Longstanding and Systemic Problems

And now for something completely different, in part because I do not want to write about green bubbles again.

You read the headline, so you know what this article is going to be about and, as a member of the “Millennial” generation, I could not be more thankful. For about fifteen years, the news has been full of stories about how people about my age are killing everything because we are narcissistic, lazy, and entitled. We are “too soft” in ways that are somehow different from all the times that has been said about every preceding generation.

But now the torch — or lightning rod? — has been passed to Generation Z, which is comprised of those born between 1997 and the early 2010s. The oldest zoomers are in their mid-twenties and, so, many of them are in their first years of salaried employment. But their relative youth and inexperience has not prevented many of them from being given managerial job titles, or so claims this bad article from Aki Ito at Insider.

The headline is “How Gen Z and the Great Resignation Created a Wave of Overinflated Job Titles”, and Ito sets up the problem, as it were, in the second paragraph:

But here’s the thing about inflation: It never ends. According to a new analysis of 2.4 million job postings by Datapeople, a provider of recruiting analytics, American job titles are even more grandiose today than they were back when Furnham was grousing about the state of corporate taxonomies. Since 2019, employers have tripled their use of the word “lead” in early-career tech jobs, upped their use of “principal” by 57%, and cut their use of the word “junior” by half. […]

It appears an increasing number of job titles do not match the work performed and, in the headline, the thesis seems clear: this is the result of zoomers with an elevated level of importance, and a desperate attempt to placate staff who would otherwise leave. As is the case for most publications, I bet Ito did not pick the headline for this story, but it is what caught my attention and is worth addressing. So, why blame zoomers?

When JobSage, an employer-review site, surveyed workers last year, 58% of Gen Z respondents said they expect to be promoted every 18 months, compared with 20% of baby boomers and 27% of Gen Xers. Gen Z workers also estimated that it takes a mere three to six years to become a vice president. Boomers, by contrast, said becoming a VP requires a decade or more of experience.

Note how this is a survey of different generations on August 1, 2022, not different generations at the same point in their respective careers. There is nothing here which suggests young people today are uniquely more likely to expect more rapid career advancement than past generations did at the same age. If anything, it basically just means younger people have less life experience. This is not new: a 2008 literature analysis (PDF) questioned whether the career expectations of young people were “absurdly ambitious?” in its title, and noted similar observations of American teenagers going back as 1964.

This is the only rationalization in this article of zoomer responsibility for inflated job titles, and it is not even clear to me that employers are bending to the demands of young people. It is a weak case for the article’s headline thesis. But it is only one of four explanations offered for these job titles, and the other three are far more convincing and, in what is unlikely to be a coincidence, they are things which directly benefit employers.


In higher-paid jobs, employers are using title inflation to try to attract a higher caliber of candidates and keep employees from jumping ship. Compared with enticements like higher pay and better benefits, tacking an extra “senior” onto somebody’s job title is free.

This has nothing to do with generational differences, and it barely has anything to do with the “great resignation” as also posited by the headline. In the same JobSage survey used for the Gen Z explanation, giving employees a different title in lieu of a raise only worked for 22% of managers. When this strategy is effective, it only benefits the employer, but it is mostly not an explanation. Next reason?

Making junior and midlevel staff seem more important to external clients.

This one makes sense. Ito cites a 2012 Wall Street Journal story in which Goldman Sachs says about a third of all its employees are “vice presidents”. I have personally experienced this, too: at one job, I was asked to pick my own title, and the one I first came up with was rejected for not being impressive enough for prospective clients. Some people just want to feel like they are being doted upon by the firm’s senior management. This is entirely plausible. As with the retention explanation, it is only beneficial to employers and costs nothing. In fact, not only might it draw more business — thereby earning employers more money — it might actually save them costs over the long term. The rationale presented first in Ito’s article is the one I have saved for last because it is a doozy:

Federal law requires employers to pay workers for their overtime hours — unless they’re classified as salaried managers. So companies are exploiting the loophole by giving important-sounding titles to low-wage workers.

Ito cites a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (PDF) in which the authors found employers stiff staff at a rate of about $4 billion per year by getting creative with job titles. This figure needs context: U.S. employers paid workers $9.7 trillion in 2021, with private wages comprising about $8.3 trillion of that total. But the NBER estimates wage theft due to managerial titles amounts to a loss of over 13% of overtime pay for already low-salary jobs; its paper only looked at jobs with a weekly salary of $405 to $505, so as to examine the use of what its authors call “strategic” managerial titles. This seems like the actual headline — and, in fairness, Ito did link to Insider’s coverage this paper from when it was published in January. But, in this article, it is not — the headline unfairly blames young people for the expansion of seemingly frivolous job titles out of vanity and inflated expectations.

This is the sort of article that deeply frustrates me. It is a drop in a sea of similar stories where younger generations are scapegoated for some presumed societal ill or changing expectation; but, if you look even a little more closely, the real story is one of increasingly concentrated power and wealth in an already powerful and wealthy group. Gen Z has its own problems to confront: its members began their adult lives in the middle of a pandemic with a whiplashing economy and, in many parts of the world, an overheated market for renting or owning a home. Surveys show they want a healthier balance between their work and personal lives, and they understand developing a successful career takes time and constant learning. They do not want to be pandered to; they just want a reasonable level of respect, as with pretty much everyone else.

Stories like these are unhelpful at best, and damaging at worst. Someone skimming the Insider homepage uncritically might see this headline and chuckle at how coddled the kids are these days. That simply is not the case. The kids are alright. It is, as ever, the rich and truly powerful — the actual managerial bureaucracy — who are enriching themselves at the expense of the rest of us.

The ‘Brand Vandalism’ Is Coming From Inside the House

I cannot recall much of the news from when I was a kid, but I distinctly remember a story about a home invasion where some intruders supposedly destroyed a bunch of valuables and covered the walls in graffiti. That narrative fell apart when police noticed the homeowner’s most prized possessions were untouched; they concluded it was insurance fraud. Some guy vandalized his stuff — actually, mostly his spouse’s stuff — and assumed there would be little investigation before blaming reckless youths.

In a similar vein — though without the fraud — comes this story from Rob Walker in Fast Company, carrying the headline “How a Viral TikTok Trend Vandalized Kia’s Brand”. Sure sounds like the youth these days have some kind of vendetta against Kia specifically, right? How are the TikTokers ruining Kia’s brand?

The “Kia Challenge” — involving videos sharing a purportedly straightforward hack that made it fairly easy to steal certain Kia and Hyundai models — initially flared up last summer. It briefly became a sensational-news staple, with media reports focused on alleged instances of thrill-seeking teens ending up in fiery wrecks. The how-to videos were promptly purged from TikTok. But unlike some scary-sounding viral “trends” that turn out to be mostly media hype (Nyquil Chicken, etc.), the spread of this car-theft how-to has had legs.

This is the second paragraph of the piece, and what follows are a series of statistics about increasing theft of Hyundais and Kias across the United States. And it is alarming — according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the rate of theft reports for cars from these two manufacturers were nearly twice as high as for other makes, and their models claimed four spots in the top twenty list.

But that is in the U.S.; in Canada, the list looks very different. Not a single Hyundai or Kia model appears in the national top-ten list released by the Équité Association, and the only mention of either manufacturer is in the number nine spot of the thefts in the combined Atlantic provinces. The Canadian auto market looks very similar to that of the U.S. because we are only one-ninth as populous and, so, automakers rarely develop or import vehicles specifically for our drivers. But the auto theft charts indicate something else is happening in this country.

I will address how that is the case in a moment, but first we need to see how Walker describes why these cars are getting stolen at such high rates:

Without getting into some finer points about how to steal a car, the process involves using a USB cable to bypass the ignition. Evidently, Kia models from 2011-2021 and Hyundai models from 2015-2021 lack an anti-theft “immobilizer” feature common to many contemporary ignition-technology systems.

This sounds like a fairly noteworthy design flaw, but at first most of the attention was focused on social media’s role in spreading nefarious information. […]

To be clear, it is a noteworthy design flaw, and it explains why the U.S. and Canadian auto theft statistics diverge so drastically. Since 2007, cars sold in Canada have been required by law to be equipped with immobilizers. Hyundai and Kia — which have mutual part-ownership and share some development costs — apparently realized they were not obligated to equip their vehicles with such technology in the U.S., so they neglected to do so. Whether that was for cost savings reasons or simply laziness seems to be the kind of thing they would not be keen to advertise, but both makes began fitting new U.S. vehicles with immobilizers after reports of this oversight gained momentum.

Yes, the ease of spreading information on TikTok seems to have accelerated how many people know about this design flaw. It is important for the company to be moderating its platform when it notices it is being used to encourage theft instead of advising owners of ways to protect their cars. But it is important to publicize flaws like these because owners of these cars need to be made aware of their vulnerabilities. In 2010, reporters at an ABC affiliate in Detroit found SUVs made by General Motors could be stolen within seconds because the manufacturer decided electronic security measures eliminated the need for mechanical measures. A specific model shared by Citroën, Peugeot, and Toyota was known to be easy to steal in the mid-2000s. A family friend was able to start his 1980s pickup truck by simply twisting the winged ignition switch without a key in it. It is possible knowing any of this information would help some criminals target certain models, but there are far more owners who should be aware of vulnerabilities so they can protect themselves.

To say TikTok caused Kia’s reputation to nosedive is an overreach. It and Hyundai decided not to equip their U.S.-market vehicles with the same anti-theft measure which is standard on cars sold in Canada thanks to regulatory oversight. While awareness could help some owners reduce their vulnerability to theft, prevention would have been an even more effective measure. Decreasing vehicle theft should be a worthwhile goal unto itself because, as Walker explains, it has knock-on effects:

“I don’t want to ride in a car with somebody who has a Kia, I’m not comfortable parking my car or being in a car with somebody who is going to park next to a Kia,” one disgruntled ex-Kia owner told a St. Louis news station. “I kind of just stay away from it because they’re like a target.”

Kia and Hyundai, like General Motors before, cannot blame anyone else for their corner-cutting. It seems social media platforms are doing their best to minimize the spread of tutorial videos, but I do not think anyone should point at TikTok when criminals take advantage of the bad decision the manufacturer made. I am not convinced a “challenge” hashtag turns most average people into car thieves.

All of this is yet another story in the ongoing series of exhibits of social media needing effective moderation and, more importantly, regulators crafting rules to avert disaster before it occurs. This is true of TikTok itself. If we are serious about making things better — just, like, generally — we need expectations for what that ought to look like.

Everybody Panic: A Finder Bug, Since Fixed, Was Sending Empty API Calls to Apple

Security researcher Jeffrey Paul was using a Mac without signing into iCloud and has blocked many internet-connected services using Little Snitch in MacOS Ventura 13.1:

Imagine my surprise when browsing these images in the Finder, Little Snitch told me that macOS is now connecting to Apple APIs via a program named mediaanalysisd (Media Analysis Daemon – a background process for analyzing media files).

That sure is surprising. The daemon in question is associated with Visual Look Up, which can be turned off by unchecking Siri Suggestions in System Settings. Given that Paul has done so, mediaanalysisd should not be sending any network requests. This is a privacy violation and surely needs to be fixed.

So Paul has found a MacOS bug, and has a couple of options. He can research it further to understand what information is being sent to Apple and publish a thorough but perhaps dry report. Or he could stop with the Little Snitch notification and spin stories.

Which do you think he did?

It’s very important to contextualize this. In 2021 Apple announced their plan to begin clientside scanning of media files, on device, to detect child pornography (“CSAM”, the term of art used to describe such images), so that devices that end users have paid for can be used to provide police surveillance in direct opposition to the wishes of the owner of the device. CP being, of course, one of the classic Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse trotted out by those engaged in misguided attempts to justify the unjustifiable: violations of our human rights.

I think you can probably see where this is going.


Some weeks later, in an apparent (but not really) capitulation, Apple published the following statement:

Based on feedback from customers, advocacy groups, researchers and others, we have decided to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.

The media erroneously reported this as Apple reversing course.

Read the statement carefully again, and recognize that at no point did Apple say they reversed course or do not intend to proceed with privacy-violating scanning features. As a point of fact, Apple said they still intend to release the features and that they consider them “critically important”.

That was certainly true of this, the first statement Apple provided in response to the CSAM detection plans in September 2021, which media outlets accurately reported as a “delay” or “pause”. But in claiming the media erred and that Apple intends to continue building the feature, Paul cites a statement provided to Wired in December 2022 which reads:

“After extensive consultation with experts to gather feedback on child protection initiatives we proposed last year, we are deepening our investment in the Communication Safety feature that we first made available in December 2021,” the company told WIRED in a statement. “We have further decided to not move forward with our previously proposed CSAM detection tool for iCloud Photos. Children can be protected without companies combing through personal data, and we will continue working with governments, child advocates, and other companies to help protect young people, preserve their right to privacy, and make the internet a safer place for children and for us all.”

It is fair to report, as Wired and others did, that this constitutes Apple ending development of on-machine CSAM detection for Photos.

Paul does not stop there. He implies Apple has lied about stopping development, and this bug with Quick Look previews in Finder triggering the Visual Look Up process is proof it has quietly launched it in MacOS. That is simply untrue. Howard Oakley reproduced the bug in a virtual machine and saw nothing relevant in the logs and, when Mysk monitored this activity, it found the API request was entirely empty. It is an issue which appeared in MacOS 13.1 and Apple fixed this bug in 13.2, released earlier this month.

But if Paul is going to speculate, he may as well take those conclusions as far as his imagination will go:

Who knows what types of media governments will legally require Apple to scan for in the future? Today it’s CP, tomorrow it’s cartoons of the prophet (PBUH please don’t decapitate me). One thing you can be sure of is that this database of images for which your hardware will now be used to scan will regularly be amended and updated by people who are not you and are not accountable to you.

Nothing about these images was being sent to Apple when this bug was present in MacOS 13.1 despite what Paul suggested throughout this article. A technically savvy security researcher like him could have figured this out instead of rushing to conclusions. But, granted, there is still reason to be skeptical; even if nothing about users’ images have been sent to Apple by this bug, there is no way to know whether the company has some secret database of red flag files. This bug violated users’ trust. The last time something like this happened was with the OCSP fiasco, when Apple promised a way to opt out of Gatekeeper checks by the end of 2021. As of writing, any such option remains unavailable.

However, it is irresponsible of Paul to post such alarmist claims based on a tiny shred of evidence. Yes, mediaanalysisd was making an empty API call despite Siri Suggestions being switched off, and that is not good. But veering into a land of speculation in lieu of missing information is not productive, and neither is misrepresenting what little information has been provided. Paul says “Apple PR exploits poor reading comprehension ability”, yet his own incuriousity has produced a widely shared conspiracy theory that has no basis in fact. If you do not trust Apple’s statements or behaviour, I understand that perspective. I do not think blanket trust is helpful. At the same time, it is unwise to trust alarmist reports like these, either. These are extraordinary claims made without evidence, and they can be dismissed unless proven.

Disk Usage and iCloud for Messages

The release candidate for iOS 16.3, available today for developers and rolling out next week, expands availability of Advanced Data Protection to customers worldwide. As I already had a beta version of that version on my iPhone, I figured I could take the opportunity and upgrade all my devices to the latest versions of their respective operating systems so I could enable ADP. But I hit something of a snag with my iPad, which was full.

If I told you its capacity — just 32 GB — that probably would not surprise you. But I store precious little on it: aside from a couple of movies and a small music cache, there is nothing on it. iPadOS consumes about seven of those gigabytes, which makes the product’s advertised capacity feel a bit disingenous, but I should have lots of space available. When I checked the iPad Storage menu, I saw the biggest source of my disk space problems: over 11 GB used by Messages.

This makes no sense. I do not often use Messages on my iPad. I have iCloud for Messages enabled, so my device should only be downloading messages and attachments as needed. It works that way on my iPhone, on which only 4 GB is consumed by Messages; on both my Macs, the Messages library folder is about 30 GB large, which is probably a complete archive.

You can change how long of an archive should be retained by Messages by changing the “Keep Messages” options in its settings. You can select from “30 days”, “1 year”, or “Forever”; I have it set to the latter. When you change that setting to a shorter timeframe, the following warning message will appear:

This will permanently delete all text messages and message attachments from your device that are older than 30 days [or “1 year”, if that is the option selected].

As written, this sounds like it is a way to control the cache of messages downloaded to your device. If “30 days” is selected, you should see only the past month’s worth of messages on your device and anything older than that will need to be downloaded on demand. But it is so much worse than that: because it syncs, it actually erases all messages in iCloud older than thirty days — permanently. This is the only warning you will get.

It arguably makes sense. iCloud for Messages is merely a syncing service — it will, in theory, match the state of your messages across all devices. But iCloud for Messages also kind of works like an ad hoc backup control: my iPhone clearly only has a subset of the messages on either of my Macs, but when I search for something, it will return results going back at least ten years. This works as expected. Whatever was happening on my iPad does not.

The “was” is important because there are no controls for managing iCloud for Messages. There is no way to purge the local cache from one device without those changes syncing across all devices. The only way I was able to install this software update was to restore my iPad and set it up from scratch. Yes, you can point and laugh at my iPad’s puny storage capacity, but it is a device Apple sold and officially continues to support. It should not work like this.

I see three problems here, all of them consequential but one clearly more serious than the others:

  1. iCloud for Messages has local caching bugs which can sometimes retain too much local storage for the device’s capacity, thereby preventing software updates.

  2. There are no ways to manually control a local iCloud for Messages cache. Apple has attempted to create a set-it-and-forget-it feature and, to its credit, it mostly works that way. But when it does not, there is no recourse.

  3. It is far too easy to permanently destroy user data. The warning which appears is unclear and its action does not match what is written.

I am not the first to write about these problems and I could swear I have mentioned them before — but I cannot find anything in my own archives. Steven Troughton-Smith pointed out the local caching bug, while Michael Tsai raised the lack of control. This could have been a catastrophe for my Messages history; I read plenty of stories today about people losing important memories because they changed this setting expecting it to only affect local copies.

I filed a bug report, of course.1 But I wanted to write this in the hopes it will appear in a web search, too, because I had a hard time finding a clear answer before asking. Changing the “Keep Messages” setting will affect what is stored across all devices if you use iCloud for Messages, and there is no way to undo it. If you set a shorter retention time, you will delete data in iCloud without any way of restoring it.

  1. FB11955286. ↩︎

What Phone Cameras See in 2023

Marques Brownlee:

As I’ve already mentioned, these smartphone cameras are so much [about] software now that the photo that you get when you hit that shutter button isn’t so much reality as it is this computer’s best interpretation of what it thinks you want reality to look like.


When you snap that photo on your phone, you’re not necessarily getting back a capture of what was really in front of you. They’re really bending it, in many ways. The iPhone’s “thing” is: when you take a photo, it likes to identify faces and evenly light them. It tries every time.

Sebastiaan de With in his November review of the iPhone 14 Pro’s camera system (previously linked):

This is a ‘clever’ step in iPhone photography processing: since it can super-rapidly segment the image in components, like human subjects, it can apply selective adjustments. What matters is the degree of adjustment and its quality. I was a bit disappointed to find that this adjustment seems to be equally heavy-handed as the previous iPhone: I have honestly never seen it make for a better photo. The result is simply jarring.

Federico Viticci:

That’s precisely the issue here. The iPhone’s camera hardware is outstanding, but how iOS interprets and remixes the data it gets fed from the camera often leads to results that I find … boring and uninspired unless I manually touch them up with edits and effects.

The camera system in the iPhone XS was the first time Apple marketed its computational photography efforts with Smart HDR and, perhaps not coincidentally, it was also the first time I can remember there being complaints about over-processed images. The quirks kept coming: last year, the New Yorker carried an article about unnatural-looking iPhone photos.

Michael Tsai:

I wish Apple would offer a way to adjust how aggressive the processing is and/or bring back the Keep Normal Photo option.

Maybe I should be using a third-party camera app, but I haven’t seen this particular option in Halide — I don’t want to save huge RAW files — and there’s still no true way to change the default camera app.

After I watched Brownlee’s video, I wondered if it would make sense for someone to create a third-party camera app focused on having a lighter touch on processed images. I do not know enough about the camera APIs to understand if this is plausible. But, interestingly, there is a setting in Halide to save only processed HEIC photos, and there is another setting to turn off Deep Fusion and Smart HDR; Deep Fusion is Apple’s term for improving texture and detail in lower-light photos. That gets partway toward what I want to see.

I tested the effects of this setting by taking two photos on my iPhone 12 Pro in Halide: one with the “Smartest Processing” toggle on, and another of the same scene with it switched off. I found turning it off creates a situation that is the worst of both worlds: the dynamic range and detail of photos is noticeably compromised, but photos are still passed through the same overly aggressive noise reduction system as any other image. In a photo of my unlit dining room against a nearby window, the wood grain of the table was evident in the photo with the “Smartest Processing” turned on, as was the crisp edge of the table top. When “Smartest Processing” was turned off, the table was rendered as a brown smear and the edge was uneven. Images with “Smartest Processing” turned on sometimes appear oversharpened, but they are overall a better interpretation of the scene.

I also tested this with some photos of my partner, including in dramatic light. I did not see the bizarre face flattening that Brownlee saw, but the highlights in each example were handled in ways where neither the “Smartest Processing” version nor the less processed version appeared correct.

The problems do not appear to be a form of overprocessing as much as they are unnatural or unexpected results of processing. Deep Fusion is great; Portrait Mode, as an option, is often excellent as well. But some of the selective enhancements made by the iPhone — the way it slices a scene into individual components for separate adjustments — sometimes fail to resolve in a satisfying final photo. Again, I tested that one toggle in Halide on my iPhone 12 Pro, and there are probably major differences in photos from any more recent iPhone. There are also many components of the iPhone’s image processing pipeline that have nothing to do with that toggle. However, the same kinds of complaints are being raised by iPhone 14 Pro users, and it has a larger high-resolution sensor and lots more processing power.

I am on an approximately three-year iPhone upgrade cycle and, so, I hope Apple relaxes its unnatural photo processing engine in the 15 Pro models. There is a vast middle ground between the completely unprocessed RAW images nerds like me enjoy working with and the photos produced by the default Camera app. There is room to create images with more character that are better representations of the scene. Sometimes, the imperfections in a photo — the grain, some slightly blown-out highlights, white balance that is way too warm — are what gives it an emotional quality, and trying to smooth those things out can make it feel sterile and inhuman.

Computers are good at taking very precise instructions literally, and there are many ways in which the digital versions of things are superior to their analogue counterparts. But that does not always make them better. It is tangential, but I am reminded a little of the problem of iTunes’ shuffle function, which would always play songs as jumbled as a computer’s random number generator could determine. However, users hated when two songs from the same artist would play back-to-back because it felt less random. So Apple introduced Smart Shuffle, which decreased randomness to create a more varied experience that felt completely random. Sometimes, the result to strive for is the one that is not technically correct but feels the most correct.

User Stylesheets Are Still Pretty Great and Should Be More Widely Supported

Have you thought about your user stylesheet lately? I cannot blame you if you have not, especially if you have no idea what I mean when I write “user stylesheet”. Here is Jennifer Kyrnin’s great explanation of what that is:

In the past, the internet was filled with bad web design, unreadable fonts, colors that clashed, and nothing adapted to fit the screen size. At that time, web browsers allowed users to write CSS style sheets that the browser used to override the styling choices made by page designers. This user style sheet set the font at a consistent size and set pages to display a specified color background. It was all about consistency and usability.

As Kyrnin writes, web designers usually do a better job these days, and most browsers no longer support user stylesheets by default. Google removed them from Chrome nine years ago and they were made optional in Firefox in 2019. But Safari, my browser of choice, still makes user stylesheets easily visible and, if you have the inclination, I recommend its use for a low-effort way of blocking irritations and overriding bad design choices.

For example, while I frequently use and appreciate the services of the Internet Archive, and the reporting of the Intercept and ProPublica, I find their modal nags to be more intrusive than necessary. So I have this section in my user stylesheet to override those elements:

html>body #donato,
html>body #donate_banner,
/* same for the intercept */
html>body #third-party--viewport-takeover{
    display: none !important;
    height: 0 !important;
    position: absolute !important;
    left: -99999em !important;

.InterceptWrapper .Post-body--truncated{
    max-height: none !important;
    overflow: visible !important;

.InterceptWrapper .Post-body--truncated:before{
    content: unset !important;

/* propublica nag */

body.app iframe.syndicated-modal{
    display: none !important;

I pulled these specific selectors by finding the bothersome elements on these websites using Safari’s Web Inspector.

For those of you with some CSS knowledge, the above rules might look like overkill. The logic of including both display: none and left: -99999em seems to make no sense. The only explanation I have is that some of these rules are more applicable to the Internet Archive donation nag while others apply to the Intercept’s email box.

Also, this stylesheet has the cruft of fifteen years of new rules and changing websites, so that may also be a factor.

Here is another example of the power of user stylesheets: you know those awful “sign in with Google” prompts that became more aggressive this year? You can turn them off if you remain signed into your Google account, but you can also style them out of view:

iframe[title="Sign in with Google Dialog"]{
    display: none;
    position: relative;

This is the kind of lightweight solution that I love. It is unnerving to know Google has so much power over the web that it offers users the trade-off of staying logged into their account or be nagged on major websites that offer Google’s login option. It is rewarding to defeat it with five lines of CSS.

But user stylesheets have drawbacks and are evidently from an earlier era of the web. The ways you might employ user styles today are often similar to browser extensions like StopTheMadness or any number of ad blockers. Modern extensions are far more powerful, too, as rules can be tailored to individual websites or run globally. The biggest advantage to the user stylesheet is also its Achilles’ heel: it only works globally, meaning the same rules are applied to all websites. That means your CSS selectors need to be highly specific. If another website has the app class on the <body> element which contains an <iframe> with the syndicated-modal class, it will also get hidden in the same way as it does for me on ProPublica. Finally, many modern websites are built with ugly generated markup which can change any time the code base is updated.

Still, I rely on this user stylesheet to keep my sanity when browsing the web today. Unlike browser extensions, there are no security or privacy questions to worry about, and it is entirely controlled by the user. I saved my stylesheet in my iCloud Drive so it syncs between my Macs; Safari for iOS does not support user styles. It is a feature that will probably be deprecated across all browsers sooner than I would like, but I will be using it until that day arrives. If you have even a passing knowledge of CSS, I encourage you to experiment with its possibilities.

Twitter’s New PR Team Finds More Normal Behaviour to Spin Conspiracies Around

Elon Musk may have eliminated Twitter’s communications department. But it appears he found a new PR team member in Bari Weiss, to whom the so-called “Twitter Files” were leaked, and who will massage Twitter 2.0’s messaging for free. Twitter apparently added Weiss to the company’s Slack channels and gave her a company laptop. You know, just a typical reporter–source relationship.

Weiss, today, tweeted a thread all about Twitter’s apparently shocking policy of minimizing the visibility of some high-profile and often controversial accounts:

What many people call “shadow banning,” Twitter executives and employees call “Visibility Filtering” or “VF.” Multiple high-level sources confirmed its meaning.


“VF” refers to Twitter’s control over user visibility. It used VF to block searches of individual users; to limit the scope of a particular tweet’s discoverability; to block select users’ posts from ever appearing on the “trending” page; and from inclusion in hashtag searches.

Weiss showed screenshots of a few users who have been filtered for various reasons, including Jay Bhattacharya — who used his doctorate status to argue against virtually all COVID containment measures — and Dan Bongino and Charlie Kirk, who promoted conspiracy theories about the 2020 U.S. election. To be clear, all of these users still have Twitter accounts and they are still able to tweet. Their millions of combined followers still see their messages. But their accounts may not autocomplete in search results or their tweets may not be promoted in trending topics.

All of these users happen to promote views typical of an American conservative and even far-right ideology, but it is impossible to know whether this is an accurate representation of the accounts which are flagged, despite what Musk says. We do not even know which specific tweets caused Twitter to flag these accounts; maybe they deserved it. Weiss is not a reliable narrator, and not just because she appears to have attained a volunteer consultancy role in the Musk era of Twitter. Weiss spent over an hour writing thirty tweets without once mentioning that Musk’s own policy position favours reducing “freedom of reach” for “negative” tweets. “You won’t find the tweet unless you specifically seek it”, said the guy who gave Weiss and Taibbi a bunch of internal documents from the site he runs. This appears to be a similar policy to the one Weiss spent an hour exposing as some kind of massive controversy when it was done under previous management.

Weiss’ big reveal was what appeared to be a contradiction between Twitter’s past stance and its actions:

Twitter denied that it does such things. In 2018, Twitter’s Vijaya Gadde (then Head of Legal Policy and Trust) and Kayvon Beykpour (Head of Product) said: “We do not shadow ban.” They added: “And we certainly don’t shadow ban based on political viewpoints or ideology.”

Again, Weiss has not provided evidence to indicate a political or ideological motive. You are supposed to draw the conclusion she has suggested based on her specific framing.

Here, Weiss trims the full context of Gadde’s statements by not linking to the post in question:

People are asking us if we shadow ban. We do not. But let’s start with, “what is shadow banning?”

The best definition we found is this: deliberately making someone’s content undiscoverable to everyone except the person who posted it, unbeknownst to the original poster.

We do not shadow ban. You are always able to see the tweets from accounts you follow (although you may have to do more work to find them, like go directly to their profile). And we certainly don’t shadow ban based on political viewpoints or ideology.

Not only do Gadde and Beykpour deny that Twitter shadow bans, they define their understanding of shadow banning, which is very different from the behaviour Weiss documents. None of the types of “Visibility Filtering” shown match the definition in the blog post above. (Update: And two former Twitter employees say “Visibility Filtering” is misdefined in Weiss’ thread.) Weiss is counting on people to not go looking for the full context because it would undermine her argument.

By the way, Gadde and Beykpour go on to describe how this process works:

We do rank tweets and search results. We do this because Twitter is most useful when it’s immediately relevant. These ranking models take many signals into consideration to best organize tweets for timely relevance. We must also address bad-faith actors who intend to manipulate or detract from healthy conversation.

They explicitly state Twitter down-ranks tweets in places like search “from bad-faith actors who intend to manipulate or divide the conversation”. You might disagree with specific decisions Twitter has made — so do I — but I find it hard to be even remotely upset by this standard. Just because a tweet is popular and comes from a user with millions of followers, it does not mean most users should be subjected to it. That is particularly true when it comes to health and democracy.

The last series of tweets in Weiss’ thread concern the hate-filled Libs of TikTok account, run by Chaya Raichik. Raichik’s posts frequently misrepresent drag events and target trans youth. Tweets from the account repeatedly traffic lies about LGBTQ people and topics, including tying it to pedophilia. This account has been suspended several times for violating Twitter’s policies against deliberately misgendering people. Raichik’s posts are intentionally and repeatedly hostile.

Weiss claims an internal memo confirms “[Libs of TikTok] has not directly engaged in behavior violative of the Hateful Conduct policy” but, again, this statement has been taken out of context. I would like to believe this is a simple error by Weiss but, as she has repeatedly done so in this thread to make her arguments — to say nothing about her entire body of work — it is hard to believe that is the case. The memo, of which Weiss posted a screenshot, says of the Libs of TikTok account:

Since its most recent timeout, while LTT has not directly engaged in behavior violative of the Hateful Conduct policy, the user has continued targeting individuals/allies/supporters of the LGBTQIA+ community for alleged misconduct.

The phrase “since its most recent timeout” is relevant context omitted by Weiss, as is the site policy team’s assertion that Raichik continues to harass and discriminate. This team concludes Raichik’s account deserves another time-out period based on her repeatedly offensive behaviour which, the memo implies, should indicate that her tweets are unacceptable and could eventually lead to a full ban. I do not see anything controversial here. If anything, Twitter is being lenient: an administrative view explicitly marks Libs of TikTok as a high profile account, and requires someone to consult an elevated level of Twitter policy maker before taking action. Weiss portrays this elevated policy team as a “secret group” but, well, it is disclosed right there in the admin view. Not a very well-kept secret, is it?

Weiss sets up a comparison between the apparently awful treatment of Raichik’s account and a lack of enforcement against a tweet which apparently included a picture of her house and its address. I wrote “apparently” there because I cannot find the tweet despite Weiss saying it remains live. It was allegedly posted just a couple of weeks ago, meaning the call to permit the tweet was made under Musk’s ownership and responsibility. Maybe all of those staffing cuts have made it more difficult to keep up with reported tweets. In any case, I do not think it was a fair call: if that tweet was as described, it should have been removed, but Libs of TikTok should have been banned long ago for bullying and inciting harassment, including posting private information.

Weiss may have rambled for an hour in a Twitter thread and her team may have been given ridiculous access (Update: that access has been disputed by Twitter’s head of trust and safety which is about what I expected for the reliability of this thread), but this is yet another apparently blockbuster exposé which has turned up little of note. Am I supposed to be surprised that accounts which traffic in bad-faith narratives are de-emphasized? I thought the whole thing was “freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom of reach”?

Mike Masnick of Techdirt published an excellent and thorough article about the many misconceptions of the first “Twitter Files” thread. It is worth reading if you care about this sort of thing — hey, you are at the bottom of my post about this, so maybe you do — but I think his conclusion is reusable for this iteration of this saga:

I fear that this story is going to live on for years and years and years. And the narrative full of nonsense is already taking shape. However, I like to work off of actual facts and evidence, rather than fever dreams and misinterpretations. And I hope that you’ll read this and start doing the same.

Weiss’ thread today involved even more frequent excursions from truth and complete context despite being part of Twitter’s internal systems. I never want to hear a critical word about “access journalism” from anyone who has promoted this thread. I wish this did not feel like a big story. But it will be treated like one because it has a juicy combination of internal documentation, moderation policy, and the whines of an apparently oppressed real estate agent turned anti-transgender propagandist. Truly, the real victim in all of this.

If you are angry about the silent de-emphasis of some accounts, I hear you; I think more transparency could be useful. But I think most people also know when they are doing things which get right up to the line and test platform moderators’ patience. Some people are just assholes. And some people believe it is their duty to run interference for them by tweeting in spooky undertones about normal decisions to figure out how much of an asshole someone is being.

One Wild Month

We are officially one month into Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter. One month of needlessly cruel layoffs, of cozying up to far right goons, of uncertainty about the direction my favourite bar is taking. It is under new management which thinks few people are unwelcome to stay regardless of their behaviour, and fired most of the bouncers so there are fewer people keeping an eye out for things that drive others away. At best, he is spineless. At worst, he is enabling and even welcoming terrible people; that is certainly how they read it.

Is it any wonder advertisers are reportedly spooked?

Now he has decided to take on what used to be his biggest advertiser after they, in the words of Musk, “threatened to withhold Twitter” from the App Store, apparently without explanation. But it does not take a close Apple watcher to speculate on why it would be newly concerned about the Twitter app: it requires all apps which permit user submissions to have functional filtering, blocking, and reporting mechanisms. This is not a mystery. Apple is probably — understandably — worried about Musk’s statements and the laying off of thousands of moderators. In fairness, Twitter does not have a spectacular track record of ridding its platform of even the most heinous material but, also in fairness, eliminating all but one person tasked with removing CSAM in the world’s most populous region will make it harder to solve this problem, despite claims to the contrary.

Musk framed Apple’s reduced advertising spend as an attack on free speech. That is a wild accusation to throw at a company that, as Jason Koebler at Vice pointed out, twice challenged the FBI when the Bureau attempted to compromise encryption. Apple’s control of native app distribution on iOS devices means it is uniquely positioned to influence acceptable limits of speech and, as Musk also complained about today, it extracts fees from digital businesses. Those are also concerning factors — ones which I have repeatedly writen about. But Musk has no credibility in framing its ad spending as a free speech issue.

Of note, Twitter has also been a staunch defender of free speech. This bar I love has long been home to anonymous users and a crack legal team pushing back against worldwide interference. It has also established internal boundaries to try to improve the comfort of its guests. Many of the people making those decisions have been pushed out, replaced by people more obedient to the whims of an owner who believes none of that is necessary. He says he will comply with regulators while laying off staff responsible for that. This bar is filling up with assholes who are making many of us uncomfortable and driving some away. Hopefully, the new spot can fill the void. Even so, it still feels like a loss.

Oh, the Places Your Apple ID Will Go

Here is a short and curious Twitter thread from app developers and security researchers Tommy Mysk and Talal Haj Bakry:

Apple’s analytics data include an ID called “dsId”. We were able to verify that “dsId” is the “Directory Services Identifier”, an ID that uniquely identifies an iCloud account. Meaning, Apple’s analytics can personally identify you.

Apple states in their Device Analytics & Privacy statement that the collected data does not identify you personally. This is inaccurate. We also showed earlier that the #AppStore keeps sending detailed analytics to Apple even when sharing analytics is switched off.

Apple also refers to the DSID by other names, such as the “Apple User Account Identifier”, “Apple ID Number”, “Apple ID Reference Number”, and “Original Unique Identifier”. Based on my 2021 data request it is, as described, a proxy for a specific Apple ID. It identifies you with Apple’s services, including for things like marketing and communications efforts. I have a spreadsheet of the nearly nine hundred times me and my DSID ignored Apple’s attempts to upsell me on Apple One, a service which launched just thirteen months before I made this data request. I also have a list of all the times I contacted AppleCare and the same identifier is attached. In most, but not all, instances, this numeric identifier is the only personal identification entirely without redaction. In my records from Apple, my name, email address, Apple ID and aliases, and phone number are only shown in part.

I am not surprised Apple assigns a personal identifier for its services; Mysk and Bakry say they found the same identifier in analytics logs for the App Store, Apple Music, and other company services.1 The researchers point to Apple’s Device Analytics & Privacy document where it says in the iOS Device Analytics section that “[n]one of the collected information identifies you personally”. But this does not pertain to Apple’s services which are covered by entirely different policies. Both the App Store and Apple Music say usage information is collected. These are not device analytics, they are services analytics. How else are recommendations or search features supposed to work? If anything, I wish Apple used this information in even smarter ways: up until recently, a search for “Low” in Apple Music would always return several results related to the Flo Rida song first, which does not see any playback from me, instead of the band I often listen to. I wish those results were more tailored to my use of the service.

In fairness, perhaps the Device Analytics toggle in Settings should be worded more clearly to indicate that turning it off will not opt out of store and services activity. I am also shocked by the granularity of information in these storefront analytics. It is relevant to Apple’s recommendation engine if I listened to an album or song and whether I finished it, but it is hard to see what value it has in knowing my track playback to the millisecond. I also think the identifier used by Apple’s services should be different than the Apple ID that is correlated with your device purchase history and support requests.

Where I think things take a more concerning turn are in the logs Apple collects alongside bug reports and crashes. If I am reading the Device Analytics policy correctly, these would fall under a category of logged personal data which “is subject to privacy preserving techniques such as differential privacy, or is removed from any reports before they’re sent to Apple”. However, I am not sure that is strictly true. I downloaded the copy hosted by Apple of a sysdiagnose package sent by my MacBook Pro — which does not have a beta profile installed and is running a public non-beta version of MacOS — and found my identifier in three files. If these are in the copy I downloaded from Feedback Assistant, Apple has copies of these three files, all of which are associated with iCloud features. Because that identifier is also used in some iCloud API requests, I also spotted the same value in activity logs for third-party applications using things in my iCloud account, as well as in metadata for local copies of documents I downloaded from my drive at iCloud.com. However, I did not see this identifier in any other diagnostic report, usage logs, or other analytics on my Mac.2

I may be getting something wildly wrong here, but I am not sure I see the presence of this Apple ID proxy in Apple’s services logs to be a violation of either its own policies or users’ expectations for using internet services in general. Its highly granular analytics are more comprehensive than I think many people would believe is necessary, to an extent they violate the spirit of what Apple professes to stand for, and it would be better if this identifier were sandboxed to avoid any association with real-world activity like service requests. I do not think it is news that device analytics are not the same as services analytics, certainly not to the extent that it justifies a lawsuit.

But there is a quirk that interests me: does Apple continue to view the iPhone as a device with a unified and interconnected set of hardware, software, and services it controls at a platform level? While it is possible to use an iPhone without an Apple ID, it is not possible to use the App Store without one, and installing software outside of the App Store is officially not possible. Because of DRM, it is also not possible to sign into the App Store for the purpose of downloading a third-party app, then sign out of an Apple ID and be able to use that app. Apple may not strictly be associating someone’s use of an iPhone with a personal identifier, but it is extremely limiting to avoid using an iPhone’s features without associating with that identifier. A wall between these aspects may be overprotective, but overprotective is how Apple markets itself.

A good question is whether Apple violated privacy laws like GDPR with the use of this identifier combined with the description of the device analytics opt-out. An answer to that question is well outside my expertise.

  1. As an aside, and I do not intend this to be mean, I think it is a little funny how Gizmodo described the way Mysk and Bakry gathered information on the analytics Apple collects: “they used a jail broken iPhone running iOS 14.6, which allowed them to decrypt the traffic and examine exactly what data was being sent”, and they “also examined a regular iPhone running iOS 16”. It makes it sound like this is information impossible to be found without some laborious and technical work.

    But this same information appears to be available if you just ask for it. I have some giant spreadsheets here containing all sorts of analytics about my activity in the App Store, Apple Music, Apple Books, and other Apple services. Maybe I am missing something, but this does not strike me as a massive secret if it is something Apple will hand over if you simply ask.

    Collecting this information at the device or network level may not be telling the whole story. Apple says it adds layers of randomization upon receipt of the data, before it or its products are made available internally. ↩︎

  2. My iPhone is running the latest beta seed of iOS so I assumed it would collect more information. A spot check of a few analytics and usage files did not contain my identifier, but I would not draw general conclusions about iOS from beta builds. ↩︎

Two Great Things in MacOS Ventura

I have been using MacOS Ventura for a little over a week now and, while I still have not gotten used to phrases like “Preferences” and “Desktop Picture” getting replaced with the dreary words “Settings” and “Wallpaper”, respectively, I do think there are two legitimately great things in this release worth calling out.

The first is Stage Manager. I only have Ventura on my laptop, but I bet that is the context where the Mac version of Stage Manager makes the most sense. Its single-application mode and aggressive animations have made me think twice about habitually ⌘-Tabbing over to my Twitter client, and I find it makes it easier for me to juggle multiple windows while reducing clutter. It is imperfect, but it feels successful in a way that is surprising to me. Who knew MacOS needed yet another way to manage windows? Turns out.

The other thing I find impressive is the redesigned Print dialog box. It suffers from a few of the same bizarre layout choices that plague System Settings — there are yawning chasms between the left-aligned labels and the often narrow fields on the right, for example. But as far as functional redesigns of longstanding complex UI patterns go, I find it a joy to use. I have quibbles — Cupertino-area friends, I am filing feedback reports — but I think it is a true success overall.

Above all, what I am most surprised by in MacOS Ventura is that the maturity of this operating system has not stopped rethinking even basic elements like window management and printing. Neither improvement has gotten in my way or made me feel uncertain about how to use MacOS, either. That is a hard balance to strike and I think these are both successful examples of making big changes that do not break workflows in their quest for improvement.

More of this, please. I have thoughts about Notifications.

The Ad Store

Apple has a uniquely loyal customer base, cultivated by spending the past twenty-odd years, in particular and continuously, carefully balancing its corporate priorities and users’ satisfaction. It has long prided itself on being an accessibly premium brand: not necessarily expensive, but definitely not cheap. It does not “ship junk”. It has expanded its range of pricing over time — iPhone models are available, in the U.S., for anywhere from $430 through $1,600. Some phones are available for less than $430, but they are often sad plastic affairs that are nowhere near as nice as an iPhone SE. You can quibble with individual parts of Apple’s product line, but nothing it makes would be shameful to be sitting on your desk.

Apple is increasingly leveraging its customer base to maximize individual spending on services, accessories, and accessories for those accessories, but it is its cautious yet determined rollout of ads that makes me most nervous. Apple is risking its dedicated customer relationships because competitors’ operating systems suck worse, and we got the latest taste of what we can expect beginning yesterday:

Apple today rolled out new ad placements in the App Store on the iPhone, allowing developers to advertise their apps in more places, including the main Today tab and in the “You Might Also Like” section at the bottom of individual app listings.

Just hours later, several prominent developers have complained about distasteful ads for gambling apps appearing in their own App Store listings outside of their control, including Marco Arment, Simon Støvring, and others. The issue was also highlighted in a tweet shared by MacStories editor-in-chief Federico Viticci.

Some users reported seeing shady ads in apps for kids and, in more than one case, sobriety apps. That last one is particularly inexcusable. I was unable to replicate it, though I was seeing ads for gambling apps in basically every other “You Might Also Like” section last night.

Whatever issue caused online casinos to dominate the App Store advertising marketplace appears to have been corrected. Today, I have mostly seen ads for games. Not good games — not the kind of games that top the charts and get amazing reviews — but more like the ones that are a thinly-veiled vehicle for heavy spending through in-app purchases. Sometimes I see ads for more legitimate apps, like Booking.com’s, but I am more often subjected to the kind of questionable products I used to see in Flash banner ads in the early 2000s.

I cannot speak to how this feels for developers, other users, or Apple shareholders and employees. From my perspective, this experiment is not a promising development for the road ahead. It feels like a bait and switch: my loyalty in buying products that are better for me as a user is being tested because shareholders need to see more services revenue. Apple knows most people will not switch because it relentlessly promotes its own services across its systems or because there are ads for third-party apps all over the App Store — or, if as rumoured, it rolls out ads in Maps. But it will feel a little bit scummier every time I go to download an app or get directions.

I am not a business person. I am sure there are fine arguments to be made by armchair CEOs on Twitter about how this is a reasonable decision for bolstering the price of Apple stock or a minor aesthetic grievance for a device that mostly functions the same as it did last week. But I am equally certain a company does not improve customer satisfaction by ensuring no money is left on the table. There is barely competition among airlines, so they all charge you for the privilege of taking clothing to your destination in a suitcase. The lack of choice in operating systems means vendors can increasingly extract money from customers, happiness be damned. What are you going to do — switch to Android and Windows? Good luck.

It is not too late for Apple to simply stop.

Semafor Who?

It seems too poetic for a major journalism scandal to unfold in one corner while a high-profile effort to save the future of media — and, if you believe its marketing, the democratic world itself — is launching in another. This new effort is called Semafor, and its co-founder Ben Smith, formerly of the New York Times and Buzzfeed News, introduced the aims of its coverage:

Our approach is more literal, and it’s built from the core principles of journalism. We take people seriously when they say they know that reporters are human beings — and experts in their beats — who have views of their own. But they’d also like us to separate the facts from our views. They’d like us to be humble about the possibility of disagreement. And they’d like us to distill differing views, and gather global perspective.

A brand new place for journalism on the web means a brand new gimmick: Semafor writes its stories in the “semaform” format. Here is executive editor Gina Chua to explain:

We’re redesigning the atomic unit of written news, the article.

We’re breaking articles into:

  • The News

  • The Reporter’s View (or analysis)

  • Room For Disagreement (or counterargument)

  • The View From (or different perspectives on the topic)

  • Notable (or some of the best other writing on the subject)

Chua says the goal of separating factual information from analysis and differing opinions is to rebuild trust. Smith, in that introductory article, explicitly tied the format to instilling confidence among readers.

This misdiagnoses the problem. A habitually contrarian and cynical reader will likely not find renewed belief in the media from alumni of the New York Times, Bloomberg, NBC News, and Wall Street Journal. We have jumped well beyond skepticism of views; there is now open rejection of facts. Over one-sixth of registered American voters — and over one-third of registered Republicans — are “very” comfortable with voting for a candidate who believes the 2020 U.S. presidential election was fraudulent. Tens of millions of people are apparently totally fine with throwing their weight behind those who lie about the fundamental facts of democracy.

As Gallup explains, the decline of trust in media in the U.S. correlates with reduced faith in government and institutions. There is a striking partisan split of trust in doctors, pharmacists, teachers, and reporters. I find it hard to believe the needle will be moved by changing the organization of an article when representatives of so many major media institutions are behind it.

Semafor’s head of video Joe Posner — formerly of Vox — preemptively responded to criticisms like the one I am making in an appropriately marimba-backed series of interviews with prominent journalists and pundits. They all say they are hopeful for what Semafor is trying to do — nearly all of them use the word “try”. Posner himself admits it “all feels a little far-fetched”.

I, too, appreciate the attempt. Why would I not? I like nuance, I like — to borrow Posner’s phrase — “messy stories”, and I like testing views and analyses. Even though its team of journalists remains primarily U.S.-based, it does appear to be making an effort to offer a more worldly perspective.

But I am also someone who still believes in institutions. I trust regulators, elections, and journalists. That does not mean I do not have criticisms — I obviously do — and it does not mean I do not try to verify what I am hearing. But we do not need articles in a slightly different layout to tell us lobbyists have undue influence in their clients’ governance, elected officials often lack meaningful oversight, and corporations do all they can to dodge regulation. Democracy is being degraded in plain sight by people who undermine institutions and then point to their subsequent failures as evidence they are ineffective. Rich people are bankrolling this hostility.

Our public institutions are in a death spiral. I am skeptical that reporting about it in a different way is an effective counterbalance. Will the permanently pessimist find a new perspective when it is presented by people they enthusiastically loathe? Semafor appears to be written for me — and that is its first big problem.

Lipstick on a Pig

Parmy Olson of Bloomberg was not impressed with Meta’s announcements at Connect 2022:

While Zuckerberg spent most of the hour-and-a-half long presentation as his regular self on camera, the Facebook co-founder had one brief moment walking around a virtual stage as an avatar that for once, had legs. With face shading and smoother gestures, it was an improvement on the cartoonish version Zuckerberg was mocked for posting in August.

But it also underscored how Zuckerberg’s obsessive and superficial formula for human connection is founded on things like realistic renderings of faces that can raise eyebrows, and duplicating office motifs like sticky notes and white boards in digital form.

It is plausible that Meta’s virtual reality efforts do not demo well and must be experienced for them to make sense. It would be utterly foolish of me to proclaim any of these efforts dead on arrival, and I do not think it is helpful to dump on things I do not understand.

But I am going to do a little bit of that because I watched Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote in full and found myself unconvinced and uncompelled by much of anything I saw. The company triumphantly said that legs were coming to in-world avatars, but it later admitted the appendages shown were motion capture animations. The best moments were in the last moments of the presentation when Meta showed off products that would help people with disabilities. But the company admitted those were still research prototypes, nowhere near finished. Whether these products ever will be released — and whether we should be offloading home health supports to private businesses prone to moving fast and breaking things — is another matter.

This is clearly an area Zuckerberg is passionate about to a truly painful degree. So far, though, the best use case — the best use case — for even the more credulous believers is meetings. I cannot imagine buying dedicated expensive hardware for meetings, but I am probably not in the right market; two-and-a-half years into working from home and I still have not bought a ring light. Regardless, that sounds pretty dull. Are businesses champing at the bit to have staff sit in a virtual board room instead of just on a call? Is this solving a meaningful problem for them?

Zuckerberg preemptively responded to criticisms like these by reminding everyone that this category is just getting started. But that is a bit of misdirection. Oculus, the virtual reality hardware company Meta bought, was founded in 2012; Meta bought it in 2014. On a technical level, Meta can point to plenty of improvements. But it is much more difficult for anyone to point to clarifications in the concept and purpose of virtual reality. Again, I would be an idiot to argue there are none at all, but this week’s keynote would have been a great time for Meta to illustrate something new and enrich the story. So far, it does not have legs.

What Is in a Name?

The headline of Alison Johnson’s otherwise informative review of the iPhone 14, for the Verge, caught my eye this morning:

Apple iPhone 14 review: meet the iPhone 13S

Johnson nearly repeated that line in the video version of the review, asking why Apple would even “call it a 14 when you could just call it a 13S?”

This sentence illustrates a marketing and branding conundrum Apple faced since the third-ever iPhone: how does it communicate a new iPhone where everything except its physical design has been upgraded? Apple’s solution was to add an “S” suffix, resulting in the iPhone 3GS, and beginning a pattern that would carry it through 2017. The iPhone model of one year, sporting a new industrial design and usually modest technical updates, would be followed by an iPhone the next year sporting significant changes to its SoC and camera, and maybe a handful of other goodies. The iPhone 5S was the first with TouchID; the iPhone 6S was the first with 3D Touch, may it rest in peace; the iPhone XS was the first iPhone — though certainly not the first phone — to feature dual SIM support.

But the S-model phones have always received a pretty lukewarm reception by the tech press, perhaps because their updates are solely about what is inside the phone. There is little to nothing for a reviewer to write about how the phone looks or feels; it looks and feels the same. It also has the same name but for the suffix which can make it seem like a more subtle update than it really is.

Apple knew this ever since it began that naming scheme, but stuck with it. After a brief flirtation with dropping its use in the iPhone 8, the iPhone XS was the last of the S-model flagship phones. Apple simply increments the number for each successive model, and puts on any number of its new favourite descriptors — “Plus”, “Pro”, “Max” — to describe its size and class.

The reason I wanted to write about this is because the iPhone 14 does not follow this pattern at all. Its branding is actually quite strange. Like an S-model, it lacks a new industrial design; unlike an S-model, it also lacks the technical upgrades that line was known for. As Johnson writes in her review, it carries basically the same SoC, the same display, and most of the same internals. Its camera upgrades are more substantial for a non-Pro iPhone model but, like the iPhone 13, are really hand-me-downs from the previous year’s Pro line. The biggest changes are the edge-case technologies it shares with the iPhone 14 Pro and newest Apple Watch models: car crash detection and emergency satellite connectivity. Are those things worthy of the “S” nomenclature?

The whole iPhone lineup clearly has more delineation now than it used to. Where Apple once sold a flagship model — and later in two different sizes — and then those from the two previous years at lower price points, it has since added to that at the bottom end with the iPhone SE and at the top end with the Pro line. That means the plain “iPhone” released every year is not packed full of the latest ideas and technology. Some of those things — increasingly more of those things — are only done on the Pro line.

All of this is to say that the iPhone line has become a little more complicated and Apple’s strategy is less straightforward than it used to be. When the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro brought back the slab-sided industrial design language last seen on the iPhone 5S, they were common in every way except their material and camera system — and, even then, only the Pro Max actually received notably different cameras. The 13 and 13 Pro mostly carried that physical design but updated the internals — more like an S-year iPhone. This year’s models are not like that at all. They are both named “iPhone 14”, but are radically different from each other. Their displays are different, their camera systems are different, their SoCs are different, and the enhancements to each are very different. Neither set of phones really fits into the historic mould of either an S-model or an all-new product number. You could make a case for the cutout display of the Pro to be either of those things, I think, but the regular iPhone 14 is just a new iPhone.

That is totally okay with me. This is not a “good” or “bad” thing; it is barely even newsworthy. But these branding choices and the way Apple positions its iPhone lineup are a curiosity. Apple is often very deliberate in the way it names stuff, often choosing to give something an Apple-y name to call specific attention to it. The cutout display of the iPhone 14 Pro is called the “Dynamic Island” because it is part of the phone’s user interface. Apple can sometimes stray into innovation speak that disguises rather than illuminates a choice it made. You could make a case for that with the iPhone 14 which, on paper, has fewer differences from its predecessor than it has similarities. I do not think this is bad, per se; most people do not get a new phone every year, and that is likely even more true for those shopping the non-Pro line.

What is in a name? The iPhone 14 is not a radically new device on the outside, and it is not that different on the inside either. The iPhone 14 Pro is more obviously differentiated from its predecessor. Neither one advertises its newness as loudly as new number iPhones were several years ago, nor as quietly radical as the S-year products were. Apple has simplified its naming, but the iPhone lineup is more complicated than ever in its details.

Free, as in Context

Kashmir Hill, New York Times:

Mark noticed something amiss with his toddler. His son’s penis looked swollen and was hurting him. Mark, a stay-at-home dad in San Francisco, grabbed his Android smartphone and took photos to document the problem so he could track its progression.


After setting up a Gmail account in the mid-aughts, Mark, who is in his 40s, came to rely heavily on Google. He synced appointments with his wife on Google Calendar. His Android smartphone camera backed up his photos and videos to the Google cloud. He even had a phone plan with Google Fi.

Two days after taking the photos of his son, Mark’s phone made a blooping notification noise: His account had been disabled because of “harmful content” that was “a severe violation of Google’s policies and might be illegal.” A “learn more” link led to a list of possible reasons, including “child sexual abuse & exploitation.”

Hill is among the best reporters anywhere on these sensitive, nuanced topics, and this story is no exception. Through careful reporting, Hill writes about two people whose Google accounts were closed — and, at least in Mark’s case, deleted from its servers — because both had taken photos of their naked children for diagnostic purposes.

I think Hill’s article thoughtfully explores the difficult and often contradictory questions around CSAM policing — certainly in a more cogent way than I can write about it — and I think this article is worth reading in full. The part I am more able to comment on is Google’s final decision to lock these parents out of their accounts.

It is a stunning display of Google’s power — and a painful reminder about single points of failure — that it is able to eradicate someone’s connection to the world without warning or recourse. Ben Thompson went so far as to call it a civil liberties violation in spirit, if not in law.

The sad thing is how unsurprising this is to anyone who has tried to deal with Google in any capacity aside from being an ad buyer. A few years ago, Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall wrote about his frustration with Google’s demonetization of stories about right-wing terrorists:

With the events of recent months and years, Google is apparently now trying to weed out publishers that are using its money streams and architecture to publish hate speech. Certainly you’d probably be unhappy to hear that Stormfront was funded by ads run through Google. I’m not saying that’s happening. I’m just giving you a sense of what they are apparently trying to combat. Over the last several months we’ve gotten a few notifications from Google telling us that certain pages of ours were penalized for ‘violations’ of their ban for hate speech. When we looked at the pages they were talking about they were articles about white supremacist incidents. Most were tied to Dylann Roof’s mass murder in Charleston.

Now in practice all this meant was that two or three old stories about Dylann Roof could no longer run ads purchased through Google. I’d say it’s unlikely that loss to TPM amounted to even a cent a month. Totally meaningless. But here’s the catch. The way these warnings work and the way these particular warnings were worded, you get penalized enough times and then you’re blacklisted.

Now, certainly you’re figuring we could contact someone at Google and explain that we’re not publishing hate speech and racist violence. We’re reporting on it. Not really. We tried that. We got back a message from our rep not really understanding the distinction and cheerily telling us to try to operate within the no hate speech rules. And how many warnings until we’re blacklisted? Who knows?

TPM also faced a different issue where its main email account, a G Suite paid Gmail account, was blocked without notification because Google flagged it as a source of spam.

It is unfair to blame TPM for relying on Google’s email services, which are among the best options for a managed email product on a custom domain, or for its use of Google ads, which are ubiquitous. Similarly, heavy use of Google services like Mark and Cassio — the other dad in Hill’s story — is pretty normal and encouraged by the tight integration of these products.

Google’s response in each of these cases points to a lack of humanity. It reflects a complete absence of care about the context in which its products are being used, from a company that has a primarily American perspective and may miss real problems in other countries. It is a recipe for more stories like these, especially since a Google spokesperson told Hill the company stood behind its decision. Not only does Google think it did the right thing, it believes deleting Mark’s entire Google presence was the right outcome.

Someone more sympathetic than I am might point out that Google will always struggle to understand context because it is operating at a prohibitively massive scale. This is a cop-out or, at least, an incomplete thought. Google, like many other big businesses, has prioritized growth at the expense of caution because the incentives outweigh the risks. Some variation of this is true across industries, from banking to natural resources to food. Nestlé is practically synonymous with a jaw-dropping lack of ethics but people keep buying Perrier and Cheerios.

It is overly simplistic to say these problems would not exist if businesses were smaller, but I believe shrinking businesses would minimize these problems. And, when they do appear, they would have a smaller effect. I disagree with Thompson’s assessment that “it seems silly to argue that getting banned from a social media platform isn’t an infringement on individual free speech rights”; far from Thompson’s claim that “you can still say whatever you want on a street corner”, you can write whatever you want on a website untouched by Facebook or Twitter, as he did. We have never had so much freedom to speak our minds and broadcast it to an audience. But we have never placed so much of our identity in the hands of such a small number of private entities, often poorly regulated. Software and services need a warranty and they need something like a bill of rights; and, if those demands are untenable at scale, then vendors should be smaller.

‘Silicon Values’

A unique consequence of writing about the biggest computer companies, which are all based in the United States, from most any other country is a lurking sense of invasion. I do not mean this in an anti-American sense; it is perhaps inherent to any large organization emanating from the world’s most powerful economy. But there is always a sense that the hardware, software, and services we use are designed by Americans often for Americans. You can see this in a feature set inevitably richer in the U.S. than elsewhere, language offerings that prioritize U.S. English, pricing often pegged to the U.S. dollar, and — perhaps more subtly — in the values by which these products are created and administered.

These are values that I, as someone who resides in a country broadly similar to the U.S., often believe are positive forces. A right to free expression is among those historically espoused by these companies in the use of their products. But over the past fifteen years of their widespread use, platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube have established rules of increasing specificity and caution to restrict what they consider permissible. That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Jillian C. York’s 2021 book, Silicon Values.

Though it was published last year, I only read it recently. I am glad I did, especially with several new stories questioning the impact of a popular tech company an ocean away. TikTok’s rapid rise after decades of industry dominance by American giants is causing a re-evaluation of an America-first perspective. Om Malik put it well:

For as long as I can remember, American technology habits did shape the world. Today, the biggest user base doesn’t live in the US. Billion-plus Indians do things differently. Ditto for China. Russia. Africa. These are giant markets, capable of dooming any technology that attempts a one-size-fits-all approach.

The path taken by York in Silicon Values gets right up to the first line of this quote from Malik. In the closing chapter, York (228) writes:

I used to believe that platforms should not moderate speech; that they should take a hands-off approach, with very few exceptions. That was naïve. I still believe that Silicon Valley shouldn’t be the arbiter of what we can say, but the simple fact is that we have entrusted these corporations to do just that, and as such, they must use wisely the responsibility that they have been given.

I am not sure this is exactly correct. We often do not trust the judgements of moderation teams, as evidenced by frequent complaints about what is permissible and, more often, what gets flagged, demonetized, or removed. As I was writing this article, reporters noted that Twitter took moderation action against doctors and scientists posting factual, non-controversial information about COVID-19. This erroneous flagging was reverted, but it is another in a series of stories about questionable decisions made by big platforms.

In fact, much of Silicon Values is about the tension between the power of these giants to shape the permissible bounds of public conversations and their disquieting influence. At the beginning of the book, York points to a 1946 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Marsh v. Alabama, which held that private entities can become sufficiently large and public to require them to be subject to the same Constitutional constraints as government entities. Though York says this ruling has “not as of this writing been applied to the quasi-public spaces of the internet” (14), I found a case which attempted to use Marsh to push against a moderation decision. In an appellate decision in Prager University v. Google, Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote (PDF) “PragerU’s reliance on Marsh is not persuasive”. More importantly, McKeown reflected on the tension between influence and expectations:

Both sides say that the sky will fall if we do not adopt their position. PragerU prophesizes living under the tyranny of big-tech, possessing the power to censor any speech it does not like. YouTube and several amicus curiae, on the other hand, foretell the undoing of the Internet if online speech is regulated. While these arguments have interesting and important roles to play in policy discussions concerning the future of the Internet, they do not figure into our straightforward application of the First Amendment.

All of the subjects concerned being American, it makes sense to judge these actions on American legal principles. But even if YouTube were treated as an extension of government due to its size and required to retain every non-criminal video uploaded to its service, it would make as much of a political statement elsewhere, if not more. In France and Germany, it — like any other company — must comply with laws that require the removal of hate speech, laws which in the U.S. would be unconstitutional. York (19) contrasts their eager compliance with Facebook’s memorable inaction to rein in hate speech that contributed to the genocide of Rohingya people in Myanmar. Even if this is a difference of legal policy — that France and Germany have laws but Myanmar does not — it is clearly unethical for Facebook to have inadequately moderated this use of its platform.

The concept of an online world no longer influenced largely by U.S. soft power brings us back to the tension with TikTok and its Chinese ownership. It understandably makes some people nervous for the most popular social media platform for many Americans has the backing of an authoritarian regime. Some worry about the possibility of external government influence on public policy and discourse, though one study I found reflects a clear difference in moderation principles between TikTok and its Chinese-specific counterpart Douyin. Some are concerned about the mass collection of private data. I get it.

But from my Canadian perspective, it feels like most of the world is caught up in an argument between a superpower and a near-superpower, with continued dominance by the U.S. preferable only by comparison and familiarity. Several European countries have banned Google Analytics because it is impossible for their citizens to be protected against surveillance by American intelligence agencies. The U.S. may have legal processes to restrict ad hoc access by its spies, but those are something of a formality. Its processes are conducted in secret and with poor public oversight. What is known is that it rarely rejects warrants for surveillance, and that private companies must quietly comply with document requests with little opportunity for rebuttal or transparency. Sometimes, these processes are circumvented entirely. The data broker business permits surveillance for anyone willing to pay — including U.S. authorities.

The privacy angle holds little more weight. While it is concerning for an authoritarian government to be on the receiving end of surveillance technologies rather than advertising and marketing firms, it is unclear that any specific app disproportionately contributes to this sea of data. Banning TikTok does not make for a meaningful reduction of visibility into individual behaviours.

Even concerns about how much a recommendation algorithm may sway voter intent smell funny. Like Facebook before it, TikTok has downplayed the seriousness of its platform by framing it as an entertainment venue. As with other platforms, disinformation on TikTok spreads and multiplies. These factors may have an effect on how people vote. But the sudden alarm over yet-unproved allegations of algorithmic meddling in TikTok to boost Chinese interests is laughable to those of us who have been at the mercy of American-created algorithms despite living elsewhere. American state actors have also taken advantage of the popularity of social networks in ways not dissimilar from political adversaries.

However, it would be wrong to conclude that both countries are basically the same. They obviously differ in their means of governance and the freedoms afforded to people. The problem is that I should not be able to find so many similarities in the use of technology as a form of soft power, and certainly not for spying, between a democratic nation and an authoritarian one. The mount from which Silicon Values are being shouted looks awfully short from this perspective.

You do not need me to tell you that decades of undermining democracy within our countries has caused a rise in autocratic leanings, even in countries assumed stable. The degradation of faith in democratic institutions is part of a downward spiral caused by internal undermining and a failure to uphold democratic values. Again, there are clear differences and I do not pretend otherwise. You will not be thrown in jail for disagreeing with the President or Prime Minister, and please spare me the cynical and ridiculous “yet!” responses.

I wish there were a clear set of instructions about where to go from here. Silicon Values is, understandably, not a book about solutions; it is an exploration of often conflicting problems. York delivers compelling defences of free expression on the web, maddening cases where newsworthy posts were removed, and the inequity of platform moderation rules. It is not a secret, nor a compelling narrative, that rules are applied inconsistently, and that famous and rich people are treated with more lenience than the rest of us. But what York notes is how aligned platforms are with the biases of upper-class white Americans; not coincidentally, the boards and executive teams of these companies are dominated by people matching that description.

The question of how to apply more local customs and behaviours to a global platform is, I believe, the defining challenge of the next decade in tech. One thing seems clear to me: the world’s democracies need to do better. It should not be so easy to point to similarities in egregious behaviour; corruption of legal processes should not be so common. I worry that regulators in China and the U.S. will spend so much time negotiating which of them gets to treat the internet as their domain while the rest of us get steamrolled by policies that maximize their self-preferencing.

This is especially true as waves of stories have been published recently alleging TikTok and its adjacent companies have suspicious ties to arms of an autocratic state. Lots of TikTok employees apparently used to work for China’s state media outlets and, in another app from ByteDance, TikTok’s owner, pro-China stories were regularly promoted while critical news was minimized. ByteDance sure seems to be working more closely with government officials than operators of other social media platforms. That is probably not great; we all should be able to publish negative opinions about lawmakers and big businesses without fear of reprisal.

There is a laundry list of reasons why we must invest more in our democratic institutions. One of them is, I believe, to ensure a clear set of values projected into the world. One way to achieve that is to prefer protocols over platforms. It is impossible for Facebook or Twitter or YouTube to be moderated to the full expectations of its users, and the growth of platforms like Rumble is a natural offshoot of that. But platforms like Rumble which trumpet their free speech bonafides are missing the point: moderation is good, normal, and reinforces free speech principles. It is right for platform owners to decide the range of permissible posts. What is worrying is the size and scope of them. Facebook moderates the discussions of billions — with a b and an s — of people worldwide. In some places, this can permit greater expression, but it is also an impossible task to monitor well.

The ambition of Silicon Valley’s biggest businesses has not gone unnoticed outside of the U.S. and, from my perspective, feels out of place. Yes, the country’s light touch approach to regulation and generous support of its tech industry has brought the world many of its most popular products and services. But it should not be assumed that we must rely on these companies built in the context of middle- and upper-class America. That is not an anti-American statement; nothing in this piece should be construed as anti-American. Far from it. But I am dismayed after my reading of Silicon Values. What I would like is an internet where platforms are not so giant, common moderation actions are not viewed as weapons, and more power is in more relevant hands.

‘Unclear Effects’ Responses and Corrections

I was particularly interested to see two responses to my exploration of ad tech company financials post-App Tracking Transparency. Unfortunately the first, from Ben Thompson in today’s Daily Update, is not visible to me because I am cheap, though I understand it to be a criticism that I did not account for exchange rates. That is fair and also, though I lack the context to say for sure what Thompson’s argument, maybe loosely agreeing with the point I am making more broadly.

The second criticism comes by way of a comprehensive Twitter thread from Eric Seufert. I have to say thank you to Seufert for rebutting my work and pointing to corrections I should make.

I want to start with a study I cited which showed negligible benefits for publishers running behaviourally-targeted ads compared to contextual ads — that is, ads based on the website or subject matter of the page. Seufert points out that the findings of that specific one differ wildly from others. I regret not looking deeper into this study and appreciate Seufert’s highlighting of its unique quality.

Seufert also disagrees with my methodology of assessing revenues by geography:

But I also think simply looking at geo-level OS penetration rates in sizing ATT’s impact is misguided given the skew of value between the platforms.


No public data exists for this but in general, iOS makes up a higher share of revenue in EU than in the US, despite holding a smaller absolute platform footprint. This is likely especially true for Snapchat which, again, historically prioritized iOS. I find this logic faulty.

That is fair; I can buy this argument. Incidentally, I find this situation sort of ironic. Android is developed by one of the world’s biggest ad businesses, but it is not the best platform for ads — or, more specifically, advertisers.

On Meta, I think the amount of blame to ascribe to ATT remains murky. The amount of noise created by TikTok’s rapid ascendancy and its ability to take younger users and, therefore, ad dollars away from Meta is an astonishing coup. Is ATT really the thing holding back the growth rate of platforms like Facebook and Instagram, or is it more likely that big advertising dollars are following users’ eyeballs?

Where I have landed after reading Seufert’s thread — and which I recommend you read, as well, as I think he makes several good arguments — is that ATT certainly has an effect, but it is not as pronounced as assumed by its ardent supports and its biggest detractors. It is making advertising a little more difficult but there are so many things happening that it is just one of several factors, most of which are more significant. My argument was certainly on a side of ATT being less relevant, while Seufert’s — and, presumably, Thompson’s — paint it as more impactful.

Where my disagreement with Seufert remains is in the ethics of monitoring user behaviour and showing them ads based on that surveillance:

This is a common argument, and it amounts to: “Users are simply ill-equipped to provide informed consent given the esoteric nature of ad tech.” I reject this. I think users generally understand the trade-offs between ads personalization and utility & behave accordingly.

Seufert illustrates this with a story from an article published in August 2020, after ATT was announced but well before it was released:

Advertising influences the user experience; people respond to ads through clicks but also through broader product engagement. An anecdote that I relay often from my time at Skype: we conducted a survey of users to gauge receptiveness to ads being introduced into the product, and most respondents believed that Skype already included ads. “It’s a free product, so it must make money by showing ads to users?”

This indicates to me how little we can really absorb and pay attention to. We are all like this. There are reasons there are guardrails in just about every market for safety, quality, and consumer protection. The data marketplace, at least in the United States, is shockingly unregulated for the risks inherent to the industry. We do not have the time to fully comprehend the very many ways in which our everyday behaviour is being tracked, nor how this information is shared and repurposed. We have better things to do.

I also think advertisers have better things to do than to hyper-target thousands of ad variants, seeking out an edge that might not even be there. John Gruber:

There’s an oft-cited adage attributed to the famed Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanamaker: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” That’s the conundrum surveillance-based advertising seemingly solves. It lets advertisers know which ads generate which business, with high accuracy. It seemingly turned an unpredictable art into a very predictable science. And now, these advertisers are finding, allocating ad dollars is regressing back towards an unpredictable art.

A key word here, I believe, is “seemingly”. The data advantages of ad tech not entirely fictional, but the dashboards featuring giant numbers and beautiful charts are giving the impression of greater precision than they truly offer. It reminds me a little of the panic over email open rates last year when it announced Mail Privacy Protection in iOS 15. Ads are surely more precise than an old-fashioned system like email, but the numbers they present are often misleading or bullshit. There is an entire industry of companies that purportedly fight fraud and inaccurate metrics, but they are part of the problem as they perpetuate the myth that advertising can be damn near perfected — if only there were enough data.

You probably do not remember many ads you see on the web or on your phone. The world of digital advertising is a world filled with ugly garbage. While the technology side of digital advertising has tried to bring it toward a science, perhaps it needs to be brought back to something more artful. Less behavioural data may encourage this.

There is a middle ground between completely untargeted ads and the hyper-targeted ones advocated for by the massive industry behind them. More artful ads, placed contextually, are a good start. I also think Facebook, of all companies, actually had a fine system in place from its earliest days: it simply asked people what they liked. Because it was a place for twenty-somethings to chat, there was a social incentive to list your favourite music, books, movies, and TV shows. Marketers could buy ads for self-selected audiences. That seems entirely okay to me — it allows for well-targeted ads without strip-mining every interaction people have across their devices, every purchase they make, and every sensor they encounter.

Two stories about Apple and advertising broke since I published my piece last week. The first was about Apple’s attempts to woo Facebook into building a subscription service — which, given a fuller contemporaneous context, is not that alarming — but it also apparently felt entitled to some of its ad revenue from boosted posts. The second is from Mark Gurman reporting that Apple internally tested ad placements in Maps, and speculating the company may increase its ad products across its platforms. Both of these paint an ugly look for Apple and, when paired with its ATT strategy — which, in isolation, seem well-intentioned — will likely raise some regulators’ ire.

Privacy must be public policy. I got some things wrong in my article and I appreciate Seufert’s corrections. I am left feeling that ATT’s effects are more significant than I first thought but still less meaningful than many are eager to suggest. The biggest critics of ATT seem to believe it is a cataclysmic technology, but also that its effects have been mitigated for over a year because of strong economic factors, and that currency exchange rates are masking its more recent effects. I find this argument incompatible with itself. It seems to me these effects are still more minor than broader economic activity and changes in user behaviour. I am also glad to see we seem to agree on this last argument. If privacy truly is a human right, it should not be up to Apple and Meta to bicker over which company is entitled to elicit which compromises from its users.

Ad Tech Revenue Statements Indicate Unclear Effects of App Tracking Transparency

App Tracking Transparency (hereafter, “ATT”) is in the news again because many advertising-supported companies have reported a particularly bad earnings quarter attributable, many of them have said, to several factors, perhaps best summarized by Mobile Dev Memo’s Eric Seufert:

It’s impractical, if not impossible, to try to tease out the individual burden of any of these dynamics on mobile advertising performance, generally. And it’s also largely beside the point: it is the “perfect storm” combination of these three conditions that compounds to such painful detriment to advertising performance.

This is perhaps true, but it has not stopped Seufert and others from calling out ATT as a key factor. Seufert published the third instalment of his series about how unfair ATT is earlier this month after news broke of new App Store ad formats, and it is, as is typical, an excoriation of the Apple-imposed question of whether users want to be tracked by third-party services:

Note that Apple’s ad network utilizes app install and in-app purchase data, to which Apple has exclusive first-party access under the restrictions of ATT, to target ads to users with its ad network. It’s worth underscoring that, with ATT, the scope and substance of consumer data utilized to target ads remains unchanged, except that only Apple has access to it. To be fair: Apple does employ privacy controls with its own ad network that are superior to the pre-ATT status quo. But my primary contention with ATT is that it does not facilitate real consumer choice and that it deprives consumers of widespread ad relevancy and advertisers and publishers of commercial opportunity.

Those are actually three “primary” concerns, and I think it is worth responding to them. But first, I think we should ask whether ATT really is cratering mobile advertising in the way both its critics and its proponents seem to believe. That includes me, by the way. I have previously linked to stories about the apparently enormous impact ATT has had on big ad companies like Alphabet, Meta, and Snap. But I thought it would be worth a deeper look.

As Seufert says, it is very difficult to figure out what specific effect ATT has because there are so many factors involved. But it is fair to think that, if it is affecting publishers’ revenue as Seufert says, it should also be affecting advertisers’ revenue too. And, while these companies do not separate revenue by platform, they do offer geographic breakdowns. North America is the only region where the iPhone is more popular than Android; elsewhere, the reverse is true, and often overwhelmingly. We also know ATT was rolled out at the end of April 2021. With time given for users to update, that means we should begin seeing North American revenue beginning to falter in the third calendar quarter of 2021 compared to the rest of the world.

The actual figures tell a much murkier story. I do not think it is fair to suggest ATT does nothing, but its effect does not seem as pronounced as either its biggest supporters or its biggest naysayers suggest.

Snap, for example, is a company that has no major revenue stream outside of ad placements in its smartphone apps. But in Q3 2021, a full quarter after ATT’s public debut, Snap posted year-over-year revenue growth of 57% overall. In North America, it reported 60% growth — higher than in any other region.

The following quarters all show overall revenue gains in North America just one percentage point below the company’s total growth. It is a pattern that more closely mimics the number of daily active users. Snap has only posted modest, single-digit year-over-year gains in North American users, but decent double-digit growth elsewhere. Meanwhile, its growth in the average revenue per user has been stronger in North America since ATT’s debut than anywhere else.

If ATT were so significantly kneecapping revenue, I would think we would see a pronounced skew against North America compared to elsewhere. But that is not the case. Revenue in North America is only slightly off compared to the company total, and it is increasing how much it earns per North American user compared to the rest of the world.

What about Alphabet? It has actually posted year-over-year revenue gains in the United States — one of few countries where iOS is dominant — higher than those in Africa, Asia, or Europe in its first and second quarters this year. In fairness, its gains were much stronger in “Other Americas”, which comprises Mexico, southward, plus Canada.

Meta’s business is the one everyone appears to be watching because two quarters this year have been rough. In its most recent, it reported its first ever year-over-year revenue decline, which dropped by about a billion dollars in Europe and about $600 million in the U.S. and Canada. That is alarming for the company, to be sure, but it still does not track with ATT causality for two reasons:

  • iOS is far more popular in the U.S. and Canada than it is in Europe, but Meta incurred a greater revenue decline — in absolute terms and, especially, in percentage terms — in Europe.

  • Meta was still posting year-over-year gains in both those regions until this most recent quarter, even though ATT rolled out over a year ago.

Those are all big, well-known companies. What about pure advertising businesses? Surprisingly few are publicly traded. Even so, I pulled the earnings from a few popular programmatic display ad providers. Magnite, for example, calls itself the “world’s largest independent sell-side ad platform”. In its most recent quarter, the proportion of revenue it derived from the U.S. increased year-over-year compared to the rest of the world. The most recent investor report from Criteo, a major provider of retargeted ads, showed an overall decline year-over-year, but the Americas performed far better than African, Asian, or European markets.

Perhaps the most favourable evidence for ATT’s effects lies in the earnings reports from Publicis Groupe, which has acquired dozens of name-brand agencies — like Leo Burnett and Saatchi & Saatchi — and also runs a digital ad platform. It is such a multifaceted business that it is hard to see where the effects of ATT may come into play. In the first half of 2022, its “organic” growth in North America was the lowest of any region. But it ranked among the middle in total growth over 2021, posting higher gains than Asia or Europe. In the same press release, Publicis also specifically calls out the performance of Epsilon, its internal data brokerage service, as a reason for its U.S. growth.

Though I did not examine every available earnings report, I am not cherry picking. I looked through the list of companies on Martech Map, checked to see if they were significant enough and had investor information, and then looked for geographic breakdowns. It is possible I have my assumptions all wrong, too; please let me know if you believe that is the case. I am not arguing this is a perfect analogue, only that it paints a murkier picture of ATT’s apparent financial effects on the ad tech industry.

I think Seufert’s criticisms of ATT have been among the most cogent and thoughtful, and I do not intend for this to be a full article about him, specifically. But he does articulate some of the more common problems I see being raised with ATT. There are legal questions which are being investigated by British and German authorities about Apple’s simultaneous offering of “personalized” App Store ads; I will focus only on the moral questions on which I think can fairly comment.

There is a fairly significant ethical problem out of the gate: there are those who believe highly-targeted advertisements are a fair trade-off because they offer businesses a more accurate means of finding their customers, and the behavioural data collected from all of us is valuable only in the aggregate. That is, as I understand it, the view of analysts like Seufert, Benedict Evans, and Ben Thompson. Frequent readers will not be surprised to know I disagree with this premise. Regardless of how many user agreements we sign and privacy policies we read, we cannot know the full extent of the data economy. Personal information about us is being collected, shared, combined, and repackaged. It may only be profitable in aggregate, but it is useful with finer granularity, so it is unsurprising that it is indefinitely warehoused in detail. You can prove this to yourself by viewing the browsing history collected by Facebook and Google, or requesting a copy of your personal data from major brokers. Some make that process very easy: you can often complete a form on the company’s website. Others require you to send an email with the personal identifiers you would like to obtain a records check on, like your name, email addresses, phone number, and device IDs. Some will display user data to those who ask anywhere in the U.S. or worldwide, while others will only comply with requests from California or Vermont, or wherever laws require. You may find some companies you have never heard of have a lot of information about you, often a mix of scraped public sources and data shared or collected in private deals.

What you will likely find after completing several of these requests, especially if you live in the U.S., is how much information about you is being held by by these brokers and marketing companies. Even though Canadian privacy laws give me some cover from the worst abuses, I have still found brokers that held my full name, my full street address, and other personal identifiers. These attributes are not often not relevant to targeted advertising — what does it matter what my apartment number is? Why are brokers not dividing the world into general areas in the style of What Three Words? — but they hold it all because it is cheap enough to do so, even at scale. All so, the story goes, a neighbourhood restaurant can precisely advertise a special offer when it is close to my partner’s birthday.

In a passionate defence of targeted ads, Seufert asked, rhetorically, “what happens when ads aren’t personalized?”, answering “digital ads resemble TV ads: jarring distractions from core content experience. Non-personalized is another way of saying irrelevant, or at best, randomly relevant.”

For what it is worth, a relevant ad has never serendipitously graced my screen, even before I took steps to avoid targeted advertising. My friends and family barely see well-targeted ads, either. Most often, they see the same ad — on every other webpage and in every app they use — for an online store they visited once, begging them to return, sometimes in French when their device is set to an English language setting. What is the solution to this — more data collection? That is absurd. Even at their absolute best, targeted ads are seen by viewers as creepy. People do not want irrelevant ads, but they do not want to feel followed or harassed either. Targeted advertising enables the latter. Even if they were a significant payoff for publishers — which there is not — does it make sense to build the internet’s economy on the backs of a few hundred brokers none of us have heard of, trading and merging our personal information in the hope of generating a slightly better click-through rate?

Earlier, I quoted Seufert:

But my primary contention with ATT is that it does not facilitate real consumer choice and that it deprives consumers of widespread ad relevancy and advertisers and publishers of commercial opportunity.

ATT may not be worded fairly — though Seufert’s proposed solution is similarly vague and unhelpful — but he is right to argue it does not offer real choice, though probably not in the way he intends. Users can still be tracked and apps from well-known developers were found to ignore opt-outs.

Then there is the much bigger question of whether people should even be able to opt into such widespread tracking. We simply cannot be informed consumers in every aspect of our lives, and we cannot foresee how this information will be used and abused in the full extent of time. It sounds boring, but what is so wrong with requiring data minimization at every turn, permitting only the most relevant personal data to be collected, and restricting the ability for this information to be shared or combined?

Does ATT really “[deprive] consumers of widespread ad relevancy and advertisers and publishers of commercial opportunity”? Even if it does — which I doubt — has that commercial opportunity really existed with meaningful consumer awareness and choice? Or is this entire market illegitimate, artificially inflated by our inability to avoid becoming its subjects?

I wonder how much of ad tech’s woes is really ascribable to ATT, and how much is the fault of the myriad other problems it is running into: currency fluctuations, regulation, pandemic effects, and changes in user behaviour all come to mind.

Cal Newport, the New Yorker:

[…] TikTok is estimated to have a billion active monthly users, a number it achieved in a breathtakingly short time, and according to some reports it boasts an average session length of 10.85 minutes, which, if true, would be far longer than that of any other major social-media app. Meanwhile, Facebook’s parent company recently lost more than two hundred and thirty billion dollars in market capitalization in a single day after the company announced that user growth had stalled. Analysts identified TikTok as an important factor in this slowdown.

Is it possible the social media giants from California are facing waning relevance? Is ATT perhaps a useful scapegoat with questionable effect? I am not sure it is possible to say from the outside looking in, but I am also not sure we can draw any conclusions from one or two quarters this year, over a year after ATT was launched to the public.

In theory, ATT is a very good option for users. Its biggest problem is that the company which makes it also has an advertising division, and it appears to have engaged in some quiet self-preferencing behaviours. Legal questions aside, it is disappointing to see such an obvious user benefit so easily undermined. These App Store ads give ATT’s critics a clear conflict of interest to point to, look tacky, and create an unpleasant experience. ATT’s reliance on a very specific definition of “tracking” that allows Apple to segment users based on what they read in News and what they buy in third-party apps is far more permissive than I think it ought to be for a company that so loudly trumpets its privacy bonafides. But advertising that relies on first-party data can accurately be described as better for privacy than those based on the third-party data economy. Whether it is fair for Apple to treat itself, as the platform creator, as the root-level first-party with an infinitely bigger observation window is another question. I do not think it should.

Conflicts like these are one of many reasons why privacy rights should be established by regulators, not individual companies. Privacy must not be a luxury good, or something you opt into, and it should not be a radical position to say so. We all value different degrees of privacy, but it should not be possible for businesses to be built on whether we have rights at all. The digital economy should not be built on such rickety and obviously flawed foundations.

Unplugged Responds, Kind Of

Last week, before publishing my story about Unplugged, I sent the company a series of questions about its relationship with Glenn Greenwald, its curiously similar product to the Liberty Ghost phone, and a few other related matters. As mentioned, I had not heard back from the company when I published the article, but I promised an update if I got a response.

Here is what Unplugged told me today:

Unplugged is engaging with a variety of thought leaders and communities that all share our core values for reclaiming privacy. We had invited Glenn to be our guest at DEF CON to share his views on privacy with the audience. As it seems, he’s not going to come.

Our phone is NOT manufactured in China. Check our website FAQ.

I followed up by asking whether Unplugged waited for a response from Greenwald before telling journalists he would be at the conference on the company’s behalf and promising meetings with him. I also asked the company to, again, clarify its relationship with Liberty Blockchain. I have not heard back.

The FAQ page on Unplugged’s website does say its phones are manufactured in Vietnam, Taiwan, and Indonesia. That seems plausible to me, though I question why a couple of small companies would need to source production from three different countries.

If you are wondering how I could have missed such an obvious question and answer, you are not alone; I was equally incredulous. It turns out Unplugged’s website is built in Wix and, while extremely janky under the hood, Wix encloses plenty of metadata in its HTML and JSON source. Here is the relevant section, prettified for readability and with a chunk of irrelevant elements removed:

"question":"Where the UP Phone is manufactured?",
        "text":"Our factories are located in Vietnam, Taiwan and Indonesia",

This specific question and answer was inserted into the site’s FAQ on July 28 at about 7:39 PM UTC+0, which is about 1:39 PM on July 28 in my time zone. I sent questions to Unplugged, including clarification about where its phones are manufactured, about twenty hours before they updated the page with this answer.

Interestingly, while there are factories in all three countries Unplugged says makes its smartphone, many of them are in the names of Chinese companies like Oppo and ZTE. If someone is paranoid about the privacy implications of their smartphone’s manufacturing location, surely that also matters. Unplugged has not responded to questions about its manufacturing partners.

Update: One of the questions I sent Unplugged was:

Did Greenwald agree to attend DEF CON with your company before invitations to set up meeting times with Greenwald were sent to journalists?

On August 4, the company responded:

Unplugged is a privacy-first company, and as such we do not disclose information about one’s personal affairs. What we will say is our team only sends accurate information in pitches to reporters.

Greenwald told me “specific dates about when I was supposedly available to meet with journalists about this phone” were not agreed to and he did not sign any contract or agree to speak about this phone. The PR representative who sent the invitations refused to comment. Someone is being less than forthcoming and, based on the responses I have received from all parties, I do not think we will learn what really happened with this bizarre situation.

Also from Unplugged:

Liberty are indeed our partners. They sell a special edition of our phone with a couple of tweaks which are unique for their devices (such as branded casing, wallpaper and some pre-installed apps).

Unplugged did not elaborate on whether there were other connections between the companies.