Facebook’s ‘10 Year Challenge’ — Harmless Meme, or Training for Age-Progressive Facial Recognition? 

Kate O’Neill, writing for Wired:

But let’s play out this idea.

Imagine that you wanted to train a facial recognition algorithm on age-related characteristics and, more specifically, on age progression (e.g., how people are likely to look as they get older). Ideally, you’d want a broad and rigorous dataset with lots of people’s pictures. It would help if you knew they were taken a fixed number of years apart — say, 10 years.

Sure, you could mine Facebook for profile pictures and look at posting dates or EXIF data. But that whole set of profile pictures could end up generating a lot of useless noise. People don’t reliably upload pictures in chronological order, and it’s not uncommon for users to post pictures of something other than themselves as a profile picture. A quick glance through my Facebook friends’ profile pictures shows a friend’s dog who just died, several cartoons, word images, abstract patterns, and more.

In other words, it would help if you had a clean, simple, helpfully labeled set of then-and-now photos.

I think it’s very fair to say we should all assume the worst with Facebook all the time now. That’s why I posted my 10-year challenge to Twitter instead of Instagram.


Pentagram’s ‘Range of Possibilities’ for Slack

Coincident with the announcement of Slack’s new branding, Pentagram posted some of the work they did for Slack. For example, this image showing seven takes on a new identity (alongside the old one). What they’re showing is shockingly bad work. I can’t believe Pentagram would present some of this to a client, and it’s even harder to believe they would show it publicly.

Exhibit A:

Proposed Slack logo based on Apple's hand-wave emoji

Slack uses colons like that for entering text shortcuts for Slack’s emoji-like “reaction” stickers. E.g., type :wave: and it’ll be replaced by a hand-waving sticker. No one who doesn’t use Slack would know that; many people who do use Slack don’t know that, because they have visual ways for choosing stickers; and even for people who do know what those colons represent, why in the world would anyone think they belong in the logo? And the actual waving hand in Pentagram’s proposal isn’t Slack’s artwork, it’s Apple’s emoji. And why would a hand-waving emoji represent Slack as a logo? It makes no sense and looks like someone spent 30 seconds making it in TextEdit. It looks more like a tweet than a logo.

Exhibit B:

Proposed Slack logo with a green @ symbol.

Where to even start with this gem? Why green? Why a monospaced font? (The lowercase L in this font looks a lot like the digit 1, which makes the whole thing look like a bad password — “[email protected]”. Why an “@” symbol? Slack already was strongly identified with a standard punctuation character — the “#” hash mark. If anything, the “@” in the middle of “[email protected]” is reminiscent of an email address — but Slack’s entire raison d’être is to serve as a superior alternative to email for group and team collaboration. Slack is not at all like email but can be a replacement for email. Whoever crapped this logo out clearly didn’t even know what Slack is.

Then there’s this collection of monochrome marks, with the caption “Logo explorations for the octothorpe”:

A 7×4 grid of proposed “octothorp” marks.

Only one of these 28 marks resembles an octothorp/pound sign/hash mark/whatever you want to call “#” (row 4, column 2). Maybe two or three if you squint. None of them are good marks. Most of them are terrible. This one looks like a man bouncing a ball behind a barber chair:

A monochrome “octothorp” mark.

Pentagram proposed an ad using the new identity conceptually based on chat bubbles — and perhaps that’s what those squirts in the corners of the new logo are supposed to represent. (To me they look more like this.) But Slack doesn’t use chat bubbles. I suppose this new identity might presage a UI overhaul in which Slack will display chat bubbles, but if not, it again suggests Pentagram doesn’t even use Slack.

If I were on Slack’s marketing team and Pentagram showed me these proposals, I’d look around the room for hidden cameras, presuming that I was being pranked. If I weren’t being pranked, I’d be furious, because this is the oldest trick in the designer’s book — making one real proposal and then a bunch of throwaway garbage proposals to create the illusion of multiple directions for the client to choose from, and assuming the rube client will happily accept the real one and consider themselves smart for knowing which one was the best.1

Louie Mantia spent 10 minutes doodling and came up with a mark that:

It’s not finished work but it’s a better start than anything Pentagram proposed. What Pentagram has revealed indicates a total disregard for what Slack is and was — a brand which users have genuine affection for — and their new mark is nothing more than an unmemorable, unpleasant shape. 


  1. I’d be furious as well if I were being pranked. ↩︎


Slack Gets a Bland New Identity From Pentagram 

Slack’s old identity had at least three good things going for it: they owned the letter “S” (much like how Netflix owns “N” — something Netflix has doubled-down on as their identity has evolved), they owned the “#” hash mark, and unique among technology companies, they owned plaid. When you saw plaid with those primary colors on a white background, you thought Slack. And plaid isn’t part of any sort of design trend right now. Slack simply owned plaid, to such a degree that Slack company socks — which simply used colors and plaid, no “Slack”, no “S” were necessary to make it instantly obvious these were Slack socks — became coveted swag.

I guessed before this blog post even revealed it that their new identity was done by Pentagram. What Slack needed was a refinement of their existing design. Identify what was good, fix what was bad. What Pentagram seems to do these days, though, is throw babies out with the branding bath water. They only build new identities; they don’t tweak existing ones. There is nothing that says Slack to me about this new identity — no hash mark, no “S”, no plaid. And what they’ve replaced it with is painfully generic. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, but there’s nothing quirky or charming or distinctive about it either. Just another sorta-Futura-ish geometric sans serif and a mark that doesn’t look like anything and makes for an utterly forgettable app icon. (This new mark is supposed to evoke a hash mark but it doesn’t — what the hell are those squirts?. The Nike swoosh this busy little blob is not.)

Was there anything about Slack’s previous identity worth building upon? I say yes, quite a bit actually. Pentagram said no. Slack lost something very valuable today.

The Titanic Hypocrisy of the Republican Party 

Tom Nichols — longtime conservative Republican — in USA Today, regarding last weekend’s news regarding Trump’s meetings with Vladimir Putin:

This is not normal, in any way. As things stand, more people in the Kremlin than in Washington know what Trump said to Putin. It is almost certain that there are readouts and analyses of Trump’s discussions with Putin — but that for now, they are in Russian.

Finally, it is exhausting but nonetheless necessary to point out again the titanic hypocrisy of the Republican Party and of Trump’s apologists in the conservative media. If President Barack Obama had shredded his notes of a meeting with the Iranian president, or if Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager were sitting in jail for lying about meeting a Chinese business associate — and alleged intelligence officer — to share polling data, that alone would have been enough for the GOP to impeach everyone from the president to the White House chef.

And Democrats would not have accepted Obama confiscating his interpreter’s notes or Clinton’s campaign conspiring with the Chinese. Democrats are partisan, of course, but their partisanship has very clear limits. The Republicans, and only the Republicans, have crossed the line where they put party above country. History will not look kindly upon them — or those who voted for them.

T-Mobile Execs, Seeking Approval for Sprint Merger, Repeatedly Stayed at Trump’s Hotel 

Jonathan O’Connell and David A. Fahrenthold, reporting for The Washington Post:

Last April, telecom giant T-Mobile announced a megadeal: a $26 billion merger with rival Sprint, which would more than double T-Mobile’s value and give it a huge new chunk of the cellphone market.

But for T-Mobile, one hurdle remained: Its deal needed approval from the Trump administration.

The next day, in Washington, staffers at the Trump International Hotel were handed a list of incoming “VIP Arrivals.” That day’s list included nine of T-Mobile’s top executives — including its chief operating officer, chief technology officer, chief strategy officer, chief financial officer and its outspoken celebrity chief executive, John Legere. […]

By mid-June, seven weeks after the announcement of the merger, hotel records indicated that one T-Mobile executive was making his 10th visit to the hotel. Legere appears to have made at least four visits to the Trump hotel, walking the lobby in his T-Mobile gear.

This is such outrageous bullshit — so blatantly, patently unethical — that it’s hard to believe Republicans just accept this. The hypocrisy could not be thicker. Of course there’s always been and always been a partisan slant to Congressional oversight of the president. But this isn’t shades of gray. This is acceptance of “anything goes”.

The core outrage here is the president profiting from his office, and the Republicans in Congress who accept it. But shame on Legere and his fellow T-Mobile executives for playing along with it.

The president of the United States should not own hotels. (They made Jimmy Carter sell his goddamn peanut farm before taking office.) If the president owns hotels (which he shouldn’t), he shouldn’t own one right down the street from the White House. If the president owns hotels, and owns one in Washington (which he shouldn’t), at the very least nobody with business before the administration should spend a nickel at that hotel.

When posed with such a blatant conflict of interest, a situation that is clearly a form of de facto bribery, no one should be asking, “Well, is this president a Democrat or a Republican?”

Turning Type Sideways 

Jonathan Hoefler:

This month, researchers made official something that typeface designers have long known: that horizontal lines appear thicker than vertical ones. At left, a square made from equally thick strokes; at right, the one that feels equally weighted, its vertical strokes nearly 7% thicker than the horizontals. This phenomenon, central to typeface design, has implications for the design of logos, interfaces, diagrams, and wayfinding systems, indeed anywhere a reader is likely to encounter a box, an arrow, or a line.

Published in the journal Vision, this peer-reviewed paper confirms that most people overestimate the thickness of horizontal lines. This is the very optical illusion for which type designers compensate by lightening the crossbar of a sans serif H, an adjustment that’s easily revealed by looking at a letter sideways.

Good advice:

Design not for what we expect to see, but for what we actually believe we’re seeing.

Helen Rosner: ‘The Pure American Banality of Donald Trump’s White House Fast-Food Buffet’ 

This photograph should go down as the definitive image of the Trump administration.

(Also worth noting: Rosner’s note on pluralizing “Filet-o-Fish”.)

Apple Launches $129 Smart Battery Cases for iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR 

Lory Gil, writing for iMore:

For anyone that’s been waiting for Apple’s Smart Battery Case for the latest and greatest X series of iPhone, your wait is over. Apple just launched a new version for all three in the current model iPhone X line, that the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR.

This year’s model also supports Qi wireless charging. So, you can set it and forget it and your case and iPhone will charge at the same time.

The Smart Battery Case can be charged with and USB-PD compatible chargers (not included in the box), which will improve charging time significantly.

I didn’t hate the humpback design of the old Smart Battery Case the way some people do, but this clearly looks more elegant. What isn’t obvious from Apple’s photos is how the Lightning ports align. I think what’s going on is that because the cases are much thicker at the bottom, the case’s Lightning female port is behind its internal male jack. The old Smart Battery Case needed a chin because the Lightning connectors were on top of each other. I also don’t see any holes for audio from the speakers to pass through. Update: I am reliably informed that there are, of course, perfectly aligned holes for sound to pass through from the speakers — you just can’t see them in the product photos.

Interesting too that the whole thing works with Qi — keep your phone in the case and put it on a charging pad and both will charge. That has to be pretty complicated engineering-wise. I presume the case charges via Qi and the iPhone charges via Lightning from the case.

Instagram Caught Selling Ads to Follower-Buying Services It Banned 

Scathing investigative report by Josh Constine for TechCrunch:

Instagram has been earning money from businesses flooding its social network with spam notifications. Instagram hypocritically continues to sell ad space to services that charge clients for fake followers or that automatically follow/unfollow other people to get them to follow the client back. This is despite Instagram reiterating a ban on these businesses in November and threatening the accounts of people who employ them.

A TechCrunch investigation initially found 17 services selling fake followers or automated notification spam for luring in followers that were openly advertising on Instagram despite blatantly violating the network’s policies.

At the time Facebook acquired Instagram, Instagram was by far the nicest social media experience I’d seen. It is now quickly descending into a cesspool of crap — bad design, bad experience, way too many ads, and a haven for scammers. I fully expected Facebook to Facebook-ify Instagram, but it’s sad watching it happen. It seems to be accelerating in the wake of the departure of co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger — again, surprising no one.

This bit from Constine’s report is funny:

This led me to start cataloging these spam company ads, and I was startled by how many different ones I saw. Soon, Instagram’s ad targeting and retargeting algorithms were backfiring, purposefully feeding me ads for similar companies that also violated Instagram’s policies.

Their targeting algorithms helped Constine in his investigation.

The Talk Show: ‘Drastically Shakier’ 

Special guest Ben Thompson returns to the show. Topics include Apple’s horrible no good very bad earnings warning, the Chinese market, Apple’s push toward services for revenue growth, antitrust issues regarding the App Store, and more.

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DuckDuckGo Is Now Using Apple Maps 

DuckDuckGo:

We’re excited to announce that map and address-related searches on DuckDuckGo for mobile and desktop are now powered by Apple’s MapKit JS framework, giving you a valuable combination of mapping and privacy. As one of the first global companies using Apple MapKit JS, we can now offer users improved address searches, additional visual features, enhanced satellite imagery, and continually updated maps already in use on billions of Apple devices worldwide.

With this updated integration, Apple Maps are now available both embedded within our private search results for relevant queries, as well as available from the “Maps” tab on any search result page.

I have more to say about this, but I wanted to link to the announcement as soon as it was up. This is huge news (particularly for DuckDuckGo) and really interesting for Apple strategically.

United Really Wants to Keep Apple’s Business 

A letter to pilots from the United rep who manages their account with Apple, obtained by One Mile at a Time:

As we enter into another 3-year contract renewal negotiation this coming January with Apple, your partnership is key in demonstrating to Apple how United differentiates itself from the competition. Overall, Apple continues to grow revenue on United more than 20 percent annually and keeping them happy while traveling on United is critical to the success of many of our SFO routes. Thanks again for going above and beyond, your efforts make a positive impact to the strong and growing partnership between Apple and United.

If you spent $150 million a year on United, you’d probably get nicer treatment, too. And the letter shows that United’s real competition for Apple’s business are the foreign carriers:

Your professionalism and dedication to enhancing the customer service experience for Apple Global Services customers by hand delivering personalized ‘thank you’ cards helps us compete and win against the foreign flag carriers especially in the very competitive US-Asia market.

50 seats a day between SFO and Shanghai is just a jaw-dropping number. That’s 25 Apple employees flying home and another 25 heading over every single day.

Update: It’s possible that Apple just has a standing order for those seats, and some days they go unused by Apple employees. But I’ve heard from a few birdies who frequent the SFO-PVG route that “50 seats a day” undercounts the number of Apple employees making this trip, because it’s only counting United. They fly other airlines when those 50 seats are already full, and that’s not uncommon. They also apparently fly a ton on Cathay Pacific because it’s a nicer experience than United.

German Court Throws Out Qualcomm’s Latest Patent Case Against Apple 

Reuters:

A patent lawsuit filed by Qualcomm Inc against Apple Inc was thrown out by a German court on Tuesday, in a reversal for the U.S. chipmaker after it won a recent court ban on the sale of some iPhones in the country.

The regional court in the city of Mannheim dismissed the Qualcomm suit as groundless in an initial verbal decision, saying the patent in question was not violated by the installation of its chips in Apple’s smartphones.

“We are happy with the decision and thank the court for their time and diligence,” Apple said in a statement. “We regret Qualcomm’s use of the court to divert attention from their illegal behavior that is the subject of multiple lawsuits and proceedings around the world.”

These court cases are so tedious to follow, but the effects are real. Until this ruling Apple was forced to remove the iPhone 7 and 8 from sale in Germany — very popular products in a very big market. And Qualcomm had to put up $1.5 billion last week just to have the ban enforced. Serious money even for companies like Apple and Qualcomm.

On Apple’s $29 iPhone Battery Replacement Program and Its Role in Their Earnings Miss 

Jean-Louis Gassée, on Apple’s earnings warning:

I have a hard time believing that the $29 limited time offer had a significant impact on Apple’s numbers. Did Apple replace hundreds of thousands of batteries? I doubt it. At 100 replacements per Apple Store times 500 stores, that’s 50K happy customers and only $50M in missed new iPhone revenues. I’d have to be off by a factor of 10 — half a million iPhone battery upgrades, one thousand repairs per Apple Store — to approach a mere $500M in missed revenue.

[Update: My battery upgrade discussion above is wrong in two ways.

  1. As readers pointed out, my numbers estimate might be too low.

  2. And… the error might not matter. Apple had full knowledge of battery replacement numbers when issuing its Nov 1st guidance.]

I’m pretty sure Gassée’s back-of-the-envelope estimate of the number of batteries replaced was way too low. During Apple’s all-hands meeting January 3, Tim Cook said Apple replaced 11 million batteries under the $29 replacement program, and they’d have only anticipated about 1-2 million battery replacements normally. (The fact that Cook held this all-hands meeting was reported by Mark Gurman at Bloomberg, but the contents of the meeting haven’t leaked. Well, except for this nugget I’m sharing here.)

But Gassée’s second point still stands: the battery replacement program ran all year long, so even if it was more popular than Apple originally expected, why wasn’t it accounted for in guidance issued on November 1 — 10 months after the program started? My guess: the effect of the battery replacement program on new iPhone sales wasn’t apparent until after the iPhone XR and XS models were available. A few million extra iPhone users happy with the performance of their old iPhones with new batteries — who would have otherwise upgraded to a new iPhone this year — put a ding in the bottom line.

The Vitamin D Myth 

Rowan Jacobsen, writing for Outside:

In November, one of the largest and most rigorous trials of the vitamin ever conducted — in which 25,871 participants received high doses for five years — found no impact on cancer, heart disease, or stroke.

How did we get it so wrong? How could people with low vitamin D levels clearly suffer higher rates of so many diseases and yet not be helped by supplementation?

As it turns out, a rogue band of researchers has had an explanation all along. And if they’re right, it means that once again we have been epically misled.

These rebels argue that what made the people with high vitamin D levels so healthy was not the vitamin itself. That was just a marker. Their vitamin D levels were high because they were getting plenty of exposure to the thing that was really responsible for their good health — that big orange ball shining down from above.

The oldest mistake in the book: conflating cause and effect (or, if you prefer, correlation with causation). In addition to vitamin D supplements being useless, the flip side of this argument is that sunscreen is generally doing us more harm than good — that the benefits of exposure to sunlight far outweigh the increased risk of skin cancer.

(Via Charles Arthur.)

Apple Revealed as United Airlines’ Largest Corporate Spender 

Benjamin Mayo, writing for 9to5Mac:

United Airlines has released a statement following the circulation of a tweet that showed Apple as its largest account, spending $150 million on flights every single year.

In a statement to Kif Lewswing, United Airlines said that the information was displayed as part of a (intended to be) private project that has since been discontinued. […]

Big companies don’t like details like this being public knowledge, even if there isn’t anything too sensational about a big corporation buying a lot of flights for its employees.

“Don’t like details like this being public knowledge” — I’ll go out on a limb and guess that’s an understatement for Apple.

It’s no surprise that a lot of Apple employees fly back and forth to Shanghai, but 50 seats every day is a lot.

HyperDrive USB-C Hub for iPad Pro 

My thanks to Hyper for sponsoring this week at DF to promote HyperDrive, their upcoming new USB-C hub designed specifically for the 2018 iPad Pro. HyperDrive features a unique grip and adds 6 ports: HDMI, 3.5mm audio jack, SD, MicroSD, USB-A 3.0, and USB-C Data with power delivery for high-speed charging.

One hub, no dongles. You can save up to 50 percent on HyperDrive on Kickstarter today. You need to act fast though — the KickStarter project is already funded (10 times over, in fact), but it closes in a few days. Buy now to help push it over $1 million in funding.

Bloomberg: ‘Qualcomm Casting Intel as Hypocrite Backfires in Antitrust Trial’ 

Ian King and Kartikay Mehrotra, reporting for Bloomberg:

After an interrogation of Intel’s chief strategy officer largely backfired this week, a Qualcomm attorney on Friday declined a judge’s invitation to bring Aicha Evans back to the witness stand as a non-jury trial brought by the Federal Trade Commission moved into its fourth day of testimony.

“Not from us, your honor,” Qualcomm lawyer Antony Ryan told U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh, prompting a cheer from Evans, which provoked widespread laughter in the San Jose, California, courtroom after one of the liveliest showdowns so far in the case. It also ended something of an ordeal for him. […]

Ryan frequently sought to corner Evans by citing piecemeal excerpts from her emails and pretrial testimony, a common tactic in trials to save time. Evans had none of it, asserting her right to read documents aloud in their entirety while insisting context was crucial. When Ryan tried to interrupt her, she ignored him and read on.

You know you’re in trouble when the courtroom laughs at you.

Apple and the Next Big Thing 

John D. Stoll, in a column for The Wall Street Journal, under the headline “Polaroid. Walkman. Palm Pilot. iPhone?” and sub-head “As demand for Apple’s signature product starts to wane, now is the time for CEO Tim Cook to find the next act”:

Apple, for the better part of the 2000s, was the master of the next big thing: the iPod, the MacBook Air, the iPad, the iPhone. Apple wasn’t always first, but its products were easier to use, thinner, cooler.

It’s a sleight of hand trick slipping “MacBook Air” into that list, to make Apple’s 2000s seem more innovative than its 2010s. The original MacBook Air was a landmark Mac, to be sure, but one of many since 1984.

With the success of the iPhone since it arrived on the scene, the next big thing has been harder to find. Apple has had no breakthrough on TV, a modest success with its watch, a stumble in music and a lot of speculation concerning its intentions for autonomous cars or creating original programming. Now, as in a comic-book movie, we’re all left to wonder whether Apple’s greatest strength could be its biggest weakness?

So the iPod was the next big thing but Apple Watch is “a modest success”? Stoll should follow Horace Dediu. If he did, he’d know that Apple Watch is now a decidedly bigger business than the iPod ever was. And the Apple Watch is still growing, and may not yet be close to its peak.

“A stumble in music”? Apple Music had 56 million subscribers in November, up from 50 million last summer, and has overtaken Spotify in the U.S., Canada, and Japan. $500 million a month in recurring revenue is a stumble I’d like to take.

I’ll close with advice from Steven Sinofsky, who ended a Twitter thread last week with this:

The idea that Apple is on some countdown clock to “next big thing” is completely the opposite of what to worry about. That is the mistake analysts are making. Just as with Adobe, nothing is bigger than Photoshop (or MS/Office) … yet, but so what?

Focus on execution.

Bingo. There will be major new products from Apple, someday, when they’re ready. There is no rush for them. If you’re worried about Apple’s near-future success, the key is their execution on their existing products. The Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Watch are all businesses that any company would kill for. Apple has all of them, and none of them are going anywhere. Apple needs to keep them insanely great where they already are, and raise them to insanely great where they aren’t.

WSJ: ‘Apple Plans Three New iPhones This Year, Plays Catch-Up on Cameras’ 

Yoko Kubota and Takashi Mochizuki, reporting for The Wall Street Journal:

Apple Inc. is planning to release three new iPhone models again this fall, including a successor to the struggling XR, the lower priced 2018 device with a liquid-crystal display that has fallen short of Apple’s sales expectations, people familiar with the matter said.

Apple plans to introduce some new camera features, including a triple rear camera for the highest-end model and a double rear camera for the two other models, the people said. […]

Apple is planning to do some catching up to rivals on rear cameras. It is considering introducing a triple-rear-camera system to its 2019 flagship model, which would succeed the iPhone XS Max, the people said. That would be an upgrade from the iPhone XS Max’s dual-rear-camera system.

No word on whether the two higher-end models will look like the XS and XS Max design-wise, but I think it’s a fair bet that they will, in the same way the 7 and 7 Plus were clearly derived from the 6/6S.

Adding a third camera only to the Max though would be a major change from the XS and XS Max, which are differentiated only by size. If true, this is a big scoop for the Journal — and a real pisser for those like me who greatly value the camera but don’t want to carry a Max-sized iPhone.

Meanwhile the LCD model is likely to be upgraded to a dual-camera system from the single camera on the rear of the XR, they said.

The Journal’s report makes clear that now — January — is pretty late in the game for major changes to this year’s phones. I would think the decision between a single-lens and dual-lens camera system for the XR successor (XRS?) is too late to change at this point.

But Apple lags behind its rivals in the number of rear cameras. Last year, Samsung released the Galaxy A9 with four rear cameras. Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro and P20 Pro, launched last year, carry three rear cameras.

This is such a bad take. Just counting the lenses on the back is no way to measure the quality of the phone as a camera. The current iPhones aren’t catching up to anyone in terms of hardware — the only arguments to be had are in software, with features like the Pixel’s Night Sight feature.

Update: It’s also worth pointing out that the only phone anyone is seriously arguing is better than the iPhone XS for photography is Google’s Pixel 3 — which only has one rear-facing lens.


On Getting Started With Regular Expressions

Dr. Drang, regarding Jason Snell’s tale of using BBEdit and Excel to create a working RSS feed for an old podcast, “Don’t Fear the Regex”:

Although I do often write short programs for text munging, I typically resort to that only if the problem requires more than just large-scale text editing or if I expect to be repeating the process several times. And even then, I usually start out by playing around in BBEdit to see what searches, replacements, and rearrangements need to be done. It’s a convenient environment for getting immediate feedback on each transformation step.

(And if you expect to do a series of text transformations often and really don’t want to get into writing scripts in Perl or Python or Ruby or whatever, BBEdit’s Text Factories allow you to string together any number of individual munging steps.)

After I linked to Snell’s piece, a reader emailed to ask why I didn’t think this would’ve been better solved by writing a script in Perl/Python/Ruby or any other language with good regex support. Why use Excel for date transformations when scripting languages all have extensive date libraries?

What Drang describes above is my process too. If the task at hand is something I only need to do once or twice, right now, it’s simply easier to just do it in BBEdit. I’m only going to make a proper script if it’s something I know or suspect I’ll reuse. But even when I do write a script to automate some sort of text munging, it inevitably starts with me working out the regex transformations step-by-step in BBEdit. Instant visual feedback with undo support — I’ve worked with text this way since 1992.

Drang:

Even worse, people who are thinking they should start using regular expressions often hear about this great book on the topic and have a natural reaction when they see it: A 500+ page book to learn how to search for text? No thanks.

This is too bad, because while Friedl’s book is great, it’s called Mastering Regular Expressions for a reason, and that reason is not because it’s a tutorial. My recommendation for a tutorial is the one I learned from over 20 years ago: the “Searching with Grep” chapter in the BBEdit User Manual. I believe it was largely written by a young guy named John Gruber.

As for the Grep chapter in BBEdit’s user manual — I did write a significant part of it, but I can’t take and shouldn’t get credit for all of it. Long story short, until BBEdit 6.5, BBEdit used a rather basic regex engine. If I recall correctly, it was a highly customized version of Henry Spencer’s classic library, which supported only the classic features of regular expression syntax. I pushed for BBEdit to switch to Philip Hazel’s excellent PCRE (Perl Compatible Regular Expressions) library, which supports just about every advanced bit of regex syntax anyone could want — and it’s fast, supports Unicode, written in good clean cross-platform C, and more.

The Grep chapter in BBEdit’s user manual was already very good when I started working at Bare Bones — the entire manual, cover-to-cover, has always been and remains genuinely excellent. In fact, like Drang, I learned regular expressions by reading BBEdit’s Grep chapter. I went from “this stuff looks like gibberish” to “Oh, I get it, I see how this could be super useful” just by reading that chapter. If you’re regex-curious, I highly recommend that you start by reading that chapter — even if you’re not a BBEdit user. The regex syntax it describes will work in just about every current programming language or text editor. (The manual is available in BBEdit’s Help menu.)

What I contributed to the Grep chapter was all the stuff in PCRE that BBEdit’s old regex engine didn’t support, which, admittedly, is a lot of stuff. Prompted by Drang’s kind words, I just re-read the chapter for the first time in a few years, and it holds up. And I’m pretty sure the line about how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop was mine.1 


  1. Although to be honest, even as a kid I never liked Tootsie Rolls, and so when I had a Tootsie Pop, I’d throw them out when I got to the center. Blow Pops were more my thing — some good hard bubble gum was a genuine treat to look forward to. ↩︎


2012: ‘iOS 6 Adjusts Metallic Button Reflections as You Tilt Your Phone’ 

This effect was based on the phone’s accelerometer, not real-world environmental lighting, but it’s certainly along the same lines. I miss details like this — I just love that some folks at Apple put time into making a single button look extra cool.

And I just learned a new word: anisotropic.

Update: Apple Pay has some anisotropic effects on iOS 12. If you have an Apple Pay Cash card in the Wallet app, the “card” shimmers like a holographic material as you move the phone around. And when you send cash in iMessage, the dollar amount has a similar effect. These effects are anisotropic, like the button in the iOS 6 Music app, not based on real world lighting. But it’s similar thinking — and shows that this sort of whimsy isn’t entirely extinguished at Apple. My gut feeling is that iOS 13 will bring some of this back, bring back more depth and texture to the UI.

An Environmentally-Lit User Interface 

Speaking of drop shadows, here’s a demo from Bob Burrough of what he aptly describes as an “environmentally-lit UI”. He’s using the camera on the iPhone to detect the real-world lighting environment, and using that to shade, color, and reflect the elements of the on-screen user interface in real time. This is not a new idea — I think everyone who has ever designed UIs with shaded textures and drop shadows has thought about this — but I’ve never seen it implemented, and Burrough seems to have implemented it very well.

Burrough has another demo video, and an article making the case for why this is a good idea. I find this very exciting — can’t wait to see where it goes.


Codea’s iOS Menu Bar

Simeon, co-creator of the amazing iPad coding app Codea:

Codea is our iPad app for creative coding. I’ve been developing a universal version for some time.

It’s hard to take a complicated, eight-year-old iPad coding environment and bring it to iPhone. There’s so many damn features that need to work in so many damn configurations.

Autolayout takes care of many of these issues (thanks, SnapKit). But it doesn’t take care of the most important: design. I’ve been stuck on the design for a universal version of Codea’s code editor for over a year. It might even be two.

I realised six months ago as I was using my Mac, using the menus, that I need these things — menus — in Codea. I was trying to solve a problem that has been solved for decades.

So I set out to make the best menus I could make for iOS.

Do not miss their follow-up post, which has several videos showing their menus in action. Fantastic attention to detail in how they look and feel.

Here’s something I wrote at the end of my piece on Undo in iOS last month:

What it comes down to, I think, is that the menu bar has become a vastly underestimated foundation of desktop computing. Once heralded, the menu bar is now seen as a vestige. I’m not arguing that iOS should have a Mac-style menu bar. I’m simply pointing out that without one, iOS is an 11-year-old platform that is still floundering to establish consistent conventions for some basic features, let alone complex ones, that are simple and obvious on the Mac.

What they’re doing here with Codea isn’t just putting the Mac menu bar on iOS. They’ve designed and built a very iOS-looking take on a menu bar, deeply informed by the aspects of the Mac menu bar that do work on a touch screen. Something like this is desperately needed as a standard interface element on iPad, and I think could work on iPhone too.

(As an aside, looking at the nice drop shadows behind Codea’s menus reminds me how much I hate the almost-no-shadow flatness of standard iOS popovers on iPad. Ever since iOS 7 I’ve thought iPad popovers look like a rendering bug or an early prototype. Putting aside a debate regarding the overall flatness of iOS 7–12, iPad popovers just look wrong to me. They should look a lot more like what Codea is doing with their menus.) 


Procreate’s Undo Gesture Is Open Source 

Procreate:

The two-finger tap to Undo was first released in Procreate 3 for iPad back in 2015, but we actually first developed it for Procreate Pocket. Undoing an action is one of the most critical input methods we use today, and we needed a method that wouldn’t clutter the interface or disrupt the core experience. We went through dozens of designs until we realised we should treat the entire screen as the Undo button - resulting in a simple gesture that could be invoked any time, anywhere.

Two-finger tap to Undo has become one of Procreate’s most instinctive and essential gestures.

It’s also one of our most-stolen features (over a dozen apps and counting), and we’re fine with that. In fact, we’re giving it away. Seriously. We’ve put together a sample project covered by the Simplified BSD License, which means you can add to or modify it as you wish.

Whether you’re one of our competitors, or in an entirely different field, please feel free to grab the project below. Take it, use it, and give your users the most instinctive Undo and Redo method available.

I love this attitude.

Just a few days before they posted this, I wrote about how iOS still hasn’t gotten Undo right. Two-finger tap is really great for drawing apps. I’m not sure it’s great in other contexts, like text editing, though. But it’s certainly better than shaking the damn device.

1958 TV Episode Featured a Grifter Named Trump Who Cons a Town Into Building a Wall 

This clip is so on the nose it’s hard to believe it isn’t a hoax, but it’s legit. It’s probably not some sort of amazing coincidence though — the actor playing “Trump” is a dead ringer for Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s racist slumlord father.

(Via Moisés Chiullán.)

‘Rather Than Dipping a Drinking Glass Into the Ocean, They Say, Astronomers Have Dunked a Bathtub’ 

The Economist on a new paper addressing Fermi’s Paradox:

Dr Wright’s argument echoes that made by another astronomer, Jill Tarter, in 2010. Dr Tarter reckoned that decades of searching had amounted to the equivalent of dipping a drinking glass into Earth’s oceans at random to see if it contained a fish. Dr Wright and his colleagues built on Dr Tarter’s work to come up with a model that tries to estimate the amount of searching that alien-hunters have managed so far. They considered nine variables, including how distant any putative aliens are likely to be, the sensitivity of telescopes, how big a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum they are able to scan and the time spent doing so. Once the numbers had been crunched, the researchers reckoned humanity has done slightly better than Dr Tarter suggested. Rather than dipping a drinking glass into the ocean, they say, astronomers have dunked a bathtub. The upshot is that it is too early to assume no aliens exist. Fermi’s question is, for now at least, not a true paradox.

Update: The original paper: “How Much SETI Has Been Done? Finding Needles in the n-Dimensional Cosmic Haystack”.

U.S. Carriers Are Selling Customers’ Real-Time Location Data 

Joseph Cox, writing for Motherboard:

Nervously, I gave a bounty hunter a phone number. He had offered to geolocate a phone for me, using a shady, overlooked service intended not for the cops, but for private individuals and businesses. Armed with just the number and a few hundred dollars, he said he could find the current location of most phones in the United States.

The bounty hunter sent the number to his own contact, who would track the phone. The contact responded with a screenshot of Google Maps, containing a blue circle indicating the phone’s current location, approximate to a few hundred metres.

Queens, New York. More specifically, the screenshot showed a location in a particular neighborhood — just a couple of blocks from where the target was. The hunter had found the phone (the target gave their consent to Motherboard to be tracked via their T-Mobile phone.)

The bounty hunter did this all without deploying a hacking tool or having any previous knowledge of the phone’s whereabouts. Instead, the tracking tool relies on real-time location data sold to bounty hunters that ultimately originated from the telcos themselves, including T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint, a Motherboard investigation has found. These surveillance capabilities are sometimes sold through word-of-mouth networks.

It doesn’t seem like Verizon is off the hook on this scandal either:

Microbilt’s product documentation suggests the phone location service works on all mobile networks, however the middleman was unable or unwilling to conduct a search for a Verizon device. Verizon did not respond to a request for comment.

To say this is an outrageous privacy violation is an understatement. It’s downright dangerous. The carriers’ defense is basically that they only intended to sell this data to the “right” people, and the fact that these middlemen are reselling it to the “wrong” people is against their “terms”. Fuck that. This data should not be sold to anyone, period. This is no better than if the carriers let people pay to listen to your phone calls. Honestly, for me and my family, our location data is more private than the content of our calls.

Brief Thoughts on the State of Windows 

Speaking of a fresh pair of eyes looking at a long-standing desktop OS, my son got a PC for gaming over the holidays. I haven’t really used Windows since the XP era. Windows 10 is — really something.

This tweet from Meowski Catovitch shows what I’m talking about. Windows 10 does have a new, simpler UI for (in this case) power settings. But the Windows 7 UI is still there (click “Additional power settings”) and the ancient XP settings are still there as well (click “Change advanced power settings”). It’s not a better UI — it’s the facade of a better UI built on top of the same old crap, which was in turn a facade on top of older crap. In the same way pre-NT Windows was just a brittle coating on top of creaky old DOS, Windows 10 is just a veneer on top of Windows XP. I’d much rather just have the old XP interface.

I’d rather retire from using computers than use Windows 10. What a mess.

The Mac Through the Eyes of a New User 

Zoë Smith:

I haven’t used Windows for ten years, since I was contractually obliged to at work. Perhaps all these features are there too. But they were not discoverable by Fabio, an intelligent person who uses a computer to do a job which is not a fancier version of “using a computer”.

I’ve been a Mac user since the IIsi. I know those features above inside-out, know which have been there since Classic days, which have just arrived, and yes, which can be flaky on occasion. But to see it through a new Mac user’s eyes is to see a vast enormity of mistakes not made. It is to perceive a clarity of intention through design, maintained over decades of updates.

I loved this piece. I see a lot of complaints about the state of the Mac from long-time Mac users. I think of a lot of complaints about the state of the Mac myself. But it’s a good reminder that compared to everything else, the Mac remains an oasis of cohesive and consistent elegant design. Just getting the basics right goes a long way.

Using BBEdit and Excel to Revive a Dead Podcast Feed 

Jason Snell:

When people ask me what features of BBEdit I use, I can mention Markdown tools and syntax support, which I use for writing stories like this one. But the other thing I use BBEdit for is a bit more esoteric and hard to describe — something I call “text munging”, for lack of a better word.

Text munging takes many forms, but generally it happens when you’ve got a bunch of text in one format and you need to get it into a different format. I’ve used BBEdit to transform the source pages of websites, to format a mailing list properly, and more. Today I used it to generate a podcast feed out of a chunk of HTML. And while I realize that’s not a task most people will do, perhaps this article can serve as a little bit of inspiration for some future moment when you find yourself in desperate need of a fast way out of an intractable text situation.

Jason and I are very similarly inclined this way. Text in format A that I want in format B — I always turn to BBEdit. I was curious what the hell he used Excel for, but it turned out to be the sort of thing Excel (or Numbers — I stopped understanding how Excel works years ago) is perfect for.

‘Post-Purchase Monetization’ — Why Smart TVs Are Cheaper Than Dumb TVs 

Nilay Patel interviewed Vizio CTO Bill Baxter at CES:

Patel: I guess I have a philosophical question. You guys are committed to low price points and you often beat the industry at those price points. Can you hit those price points without the additional data collection that TV does if you don’t have an ad business or a data business on top of the TV?

Baxter: So that’s a great question. Actually, we should have a beer and have a long, long chat about that.

So look, it’s not just about data collection. It’s about post-purchase monetization of the TV.

This is a cutthroat industry. It’s a 6-percent margin industry, right? I mean, you know it’s pretty ruthless. You could say it’s self-inflicted, or you could say there’s a greater strategy going on here, and there is. The greater strategy is I really don’t need to make money off of the TV. I need to cover my cost.

I know a certain company that is really good at succeeding in “cutthroat” low-margin industries by making superior products that can sell for higher margins. And their products tend not to do creepy stuff like this.

Let’s be clear what this is: the TV makers have software that watches what you watch and keeps track of it to show you targeted ads.

Bloomberg: ‘Facebook App Can’t Be Deleted From Certain Samsung Phones’ 

People get annoyed by any undeleteable third-party app, but Facebook is particularly problematic because no one trusts them. You can “disable” it, but does that really keep Facebook from tracking you on the phone? I wouldn’t trust it. And who thought this was a good idea? Was there a single person on the planet who wanted to use Facebook on their phone but didn’t because it wasn’t pre-installed at the factory?

Update: A friend suggests this might be about India and countries in southeast Asia, where not everyone has an email address, the Google Play Store is not ubiquitous, and apps are often installed via sideloading and are often of dodgy origin. I.e. that Android in the developing world really is tricky enough that pre-installing Facebook could be of use to some people.

The Google Assistant Ride at CES 2019 

Even by the standards of CES marketing spectacles this is nuts.

(Via this Dieter Bohn feature for The Verge on Google’s plans to turn Assistant into more of an Alexa-style platform.)

Samsung Announces 29 Percent Drop in Quarterly Profit 

Reuters:

Samsung Electronics surprised the market on Tuesday with an estimated 29 percent drop in quarterly profit, blaming weak chip demand in a rare commentary issued to “ease confusion” among investors already fretting about a global tech slowdown.

The South Korean firm also said profit would remain subdued in the first quarter due to difficult conditions in memory chips, but that the market is likely to improve in the second half of the year as customers release new smartphones.

LG, too. Maybe the market shouldn’t have been surprised.

Stephen Hackett on the 12-Inch PowerBook G4 

Stephen Hackett:

It’s been pretty quiet on my YouTube channel, but I’m kicking off 2019 with something fun: A look at the most beloved notebook in Mac history, the 12-inch PowerBook G4.

The 12-inch PowerBook G4 has come up a few times on my podcast recently. Yeah, it’s absurdly thick by today’s standards, but damn if it doesn’t still look cool. Hackett captures the appeal of it so well.

Samsung and Apple, Sitting in a Tree, K‑I‑S‑S‑I‑N‑G 

Samsung press release from CES:

“We look forward to bringing the iTunes and AirPlay 2 experience to even more customers around the world through Samsung Smart TVs, so iPhone, iPad and Mac users have yet another way to enjoy all their favorite content on the biggest screen in their home,” said Eddy Cue, senior vice president of Internet Software and Services at Apple.

Clark Griswold, Christmas Vacation:

Oh, Eddie, if I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am now.

Jerry Seinfeld’s Tribute to Bob Einstein 

Jerry Seinfeld:

We made this little tribute to one of our favorite people ever in the world of comedy, the one and only Bob Einstein.

(And yes, I did give him the car.)

Banktivity 7 

My thanks to IGG Software for sponsoring Daring Fireball this week to promote Banktivity. Banktivity offers native apps exclusively for Mac and iOS (including both iPhone and iPad). Everything you’d want, including dark mode support on Mojave.

Banktivity offers a slew of features and connects directly to over 10,000 banks. It tracks your spending, your debt, and helps you budget your money and plan for the future. If one of your resolutions for the new year is to better organize your finances, you should start by downloading Banktivity.

They offer a free trial and a 90-day money-back guarantee, and they have a special offer just for DF readers: use code “DARINGFIREBALL10” and you’ll save 10 percent when you purchase Banktivity from IGG’s website.

‘Picked Off’ 

Fred Imbert, reporting for CNBC:

Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, said Friday that Apple’s technology may have been stolen by the Chinese.

“I don’t want to surmise too much here, but Apple technology may have been picked off by China and now China is becoming very competitive with Apple. You’ve got to have rule of law,” Kudlow said in an interview with Bloomberg. “There are some indications from China that they’re looking at that, but we don’t know that yet. There’s no enforcement; there’s nothing concrete.”

I think what he’s saying here is that the Chinese stole Apple technology, copied it, and are now flooding the Chinese market with phones based on that stolen tech. I’m 99.8 percent certain that hasn’t happened — if there were Chinese phones built with stolen Apple technology we’d know it because we’d see it.

I was going to say “You can’t just make shit like this up”, but as with most of the Trump Kakistocracy, things that you think are can’t’s are really just shouldn’t’s.

Apple’s Precarious and Pivotal 2019 

Great piece from MG Siegler on yesterday’s shit sandwich.

Regarding Apple’s Gross Margins 

In the wake of yesterday’s terrible no good very bad earnings warning, a bunch of people have been arguing with me on Twitter that Tim Cook is at fault for greedily raising prices to increase profits. I’ve been arguing since last year with the iPhone X that Apple isn’t raising prices, per se, but rather is making more expensive products.

But as this thread on Twitter with “Cremnob” shows, there shouldn’t even be any argument. Apple’s company-wide gross margins have been 37-38 percent for the last five years. Going back 10 years, there’s a bit more fluctuation, but the fluctuations were higher, peaking at 44 percent in 2012.

And these are company-wide numbers. Apple’s Services revenue is growing quickly (as Apple is very happy to tell you — count how many times Tim Cook mentioned it in yesterday’s letter to shareholders), and it seems like their margins on services are higher than on hardware. So if high-margin services revenue is growing but overall company gross margins are stable at 38 percent, that means their margins on hardware products like iPhone are actually shrinking.


On Netflix Pulling Out of iTunes Billing for New Users

Manish Singh, reporting for VentureBeat:

Netflix is further distancing itself from Apple’s iTunes tax bracket. Earlier this year, the streaming giant enabled iOS users in more than two dozen markets to bypass the iTunes payment method as part of an experiment. The company now tells VentureBeat that it has concluded the experiment and has incorporated the change globally.

“We no longer support iTunes as a method of payment for new members,” a Netflix spokesperson told VentureBeat. Existing members, however, can continue to use iTunes as a method of payment, the spokesperson added.

This is a big deal. Netflix is the top-grossing app in the App Store in the U.S. They might remain the top-grossing app, even, because users who have already signed up with iTunes billing can keep doing so. But it really tells you how fractious Apple’s relationship is with content providers if the most successful one on the platform stops supporting it. And keep in mind that Netflix has long had a special relationship with Apple, with an 85/15 cut from the start, not just after a year.

If Apple wants to insist on a cut of in-app purchased subscription revenue, that’s their prerogative. What gets me, though, are the rules that prevent apps that eschew in-app purchases from telling users in plain language how to actually pay. Not only is Netflix not allowed to link to their website, they can’t even tell the user they need to go to netflix.com to sign up. This screen from the current version of Netflix for iPad is as close as they get, and I’ll bet it was the result of tense negotiations with Apple. Again, Apple can make the rules — it’s their platform. But it’s just wrong that one of the rules is that apps aren’t allowed to explain the rules to users.

Apple should be earning its share of in-app subscription revenue by competing on convenience, not confusion and obfuscation.

Oh, and that “Help” button up in the corner of the Netflix launch screen is interesting. Tap that button and you get the option to call Netflix customer support (over some VOIP system, not a real phone call). I tried that, was told the queue was “about 6 minutes”, and exactly 6 minutes and 11 seconds later I was speaking to a friendly support rep. I told him I was using the iPad app and trying to sign up, but couldn’t figure out how.

He told me I need to go to netflix.com in my browser. 


Nokia’s Next Android Flagship Will Sport Five Cameras 

Op-ed by Gillette CEO James M. Kilts in The Onion, 2004: “Fuck Everything, We’re Doing Five Blades”.

A serious question: How would a design like this work with a phone case? It would need to be more like a bumper than a case.