‘The Bigs Are Starting to Accept the Unimaginable’ 

Josh Marshall, writing at TPM:

Sometimes it’s specific, some kind of corrupt alliance; other times it’s amorphous, some kind of inexplicable hold Putin has over Trump by force of personality. But the kind of people who never said this kind of thing are saying it now. Somehow the President is compromised. Putin has something on him; or he has tempted his avarice with something. But there’s simply no innocent explanation for what we’re seeing.

That’s the shift. The Monday press conference made cautious, prominent people start to come to grips with the reality that Donald Trump, as crazy as it sounds and as difficult as it may be to believe, is under some kind of influence or control by a foreign adversary power, whether by fear or avarice or some other factor.

As yet, there’s little difference of behavior from elected Republicans. And I don’t expect any. What veteran foreign policy or diplomatic hands say on CNN is not the most important thing. But I think they are indicators of a change, a change of perception I expect is occurring among many who can’t yet speak.

‘Fortnite: Battle Royale’ Has Made Over $1 Billion in 10 Months 

Erik Kain, writing for Forbes:

Epic Games continues to dazzle the world of video games with the runaway success of the company’s free-to-play game Fortnite: Battle Royale. According to a new report from research firm SuperData, the game has now made over $1 billion since its release in October, 2017.

That’s roughly on par with a blockbuster movie like The Last Jedi. And remember, Fortnite is free-to-win: you can download and play completely free of charge and be at no disadvantage. Epic makes money only from selling cosmetic features like player skins and (I swear) dance moves. It’s fun and fair to play for free, and they charge money to make it a little more fun while keeping it fair for all.

Service Documents Suggest Silicone Membrane in New MacBook Pro Keyboards Is Indeed Designed to Keep Out Debris 

Interesting find by French site MacGeneration. Here’s the article in English, via Google Translate. (Side note: holy shit is Google Translate getting good — this still isn’t quite natural, but there are entire sentences with complex structure and punctuation that read perfectly.)

Here’s the relevant passage from the Apple service document MacGeneration obtained, which was in English:

Keyboard and Keycaps

The keyboard has a membrane under the keycaps to prevent debris from entering the butterfly mechanism. The procedure for the replacement has also changed from the previous model. Repair documentation and service videos will be available when keycaps parts begin shipping.

This is what I thought all along: the new third-generation keyboard was designed to be better in every way, quieter and more durable, but Apple, for legal and/or marketing reasons, has decided only to tout that the new design is quieter.

For what it’s worth, I’ve heard from a little birdie or two that my take is correct. Whether this design does make the keyboards more durable and reliable, only time and real-world use will tell. But they were designed to be.

Serenity Caldwell Leaves iMore for Apple 

What a great hire for Apple. Serenity is one of the best writers on the Apple beat, with such a distinctive style, and she has gone from good to great as a podcaster. Lucky for me, she was on my show just a few weeks ago. Will be a while before she is again (probably?).

iOS 12 Beta 4 Requires Device to Be Unlocked Before Connecting Any USB Accessories 

Andrew O’Hara, AppleInsider:

The change in the latest beta of iOS 12 is building on USB Restricted Mode which disables the Lightning port of an iOS device one hour after last being unlocked. The Lightning port could still be used for charging, but no accessories would be able to function until unlocked.

In the fourth developer beta of iOS 12, a passcode is required any time a computer or USB accessory is connected.

Before the change, authorities or criminals would have an hour since last unlock to connect a cracking device, like the GreyKey box. Now, they don’t have that hour, making it that much more difficult to brute force a password attempt into a device.

So much for this loophole being hard for Apple to close.

Kara Swisher Interviews Mark Zuckerberg 

From a 90-minute podcast interview:

Zuckerberg: Let me give you an example of where we would take it down. In Myanmar or Sri Lanka, where there’s a history of sectarian violence, similar to the tradition in the U.S. where you can’t go into a movie theater and yell “Fire!” because that creates an imminent harm.

The principles that we have on what we remove from the service are: If it’s going to result in real harm, real physical harm, or if you’re attacking individuals, then that content shouldn’t be on the platform. There’s a lot of categories of that that we can get into, but then there’s broad debate.

Swisher: Okay. “Sandy Hook didn’t happen” is not a debate. It is false. You can’t just take that down?

Zuckerberg: I agree that it is false.

I also think that going to someone who is a victim of Sandy Hook and telling them, “Hey, no, you’re a liar” — that is harassment, and we actually will take that down. But overall, let’s take this whole closer to home…

I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong, but I think—

Swisher: In the case of the Holocaust deniers, they might be, but go ahead.

Zuckerberg: It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent. I just think, as abhorrent as some of those examples are, I think the reality is also that I get things wrong when I speak publicly. I’m sure you do. I’m sure a lot of leaders and public figures we respect do too, and I just don’t think that it is the right thing to say, “We’re going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.”

Zuckerberg is so wrong here. It is not hard at all to “impugn the intent” of Holocaust or Sandy Hook deniers. They’re fucking Nazis. The idea that these people are wrong but are making honest mistakes in good faith is nonsense. Facebook’s stance on this is genuinely detrimental to society. They’re offering a powerful platform that reaches the entire world to lunatics who, in the pre-internet age, were relegated to handing out mimeographs while spouting through a megaphone on a street corner.

Undercover Facebook Moderator Was Instructed Not to Remove Fringe Groups or Hate Speech 

Nick Statt, writing for The Verge:

The undercover journalist detailed his findings in a new documentary titled Inside Facebook: Secrets of the Social Network, that just aired on the UK’s Channel 4. The investigation outlines questionable practices on behalf of CPL Resources, a third-party content moderator firm based in Dublin, Ireland that Facebook has worked with since 2010.

Those questionable practices primarily involve a hands-off approach to flagged and reported content like graphic violence, hate speech, and racist and other bigoted rhetoric from far-right groups. The undercover reporter says he was also instructed to ignore users who looked as if they were under 13 years of age, which is the minimum age requirement to sign up for Facebook in accordance with the Child Online Protection Act, a 1998 privacy law passed in the US designed to protect young children from exploitation and harmful and violent content on the internet. The documentary insinuates that Facebook takes a hands-off approach to such content, including blatantly false stories parading as truth, because it engages users for longer and drives up advertising revenue.

Shocker.

European Commission Fines Google a Record €4.34 Billion for ‘Illegal Practices Regarding Android Mobile Devices to Strengthen Dominance of Google’s Search Engine’ 

European Commission press release:

The European Commission has fined Google €4.34 billion for breaching EU antitrust rules. Since 2011, Google has imposed illegal restrictions on Android device manufacturers and mobile network operators to cement its dominant position in general internet search.

That’s the largest fine in EU antitrust history.

In particular, Google:

  • has required manufacturers to pre-install the Google Search app and browser app (Chrome), as a condition for licensing Google’s app store (the Play Store);

  • made payments to certain large manufacturers and mobile network operators on condition that they exclusively pre-installed the Google Search app on their devices; and

  • has prevented manufacturers wishing to pre-install Google apps from selling even a single smart mobile device running on alternative versions of Android that were not approved by Google (so-called “Android forks”).

My first take on this is that Google ought to be able to do these things. I largely disagreed with the US antitrust case against Microsoft back in the ’90s too, and in broad strokes the charges are remarkably similar. Bundling IE with Windows and declaring the browser to be part of the OS was a big part of that case. I think it’s right that a modern OS has a built-in system browser.

What gets me, though, is Google’s decade-long hypocrisy about Android being “open”. What a pile of horseshit.

Update: After some thought, I do agree with the EU on the forks clause. As one reader wrote:

If I am a licensee for the commercial version of an open source thing, it’s actually farcical to punish me for building other products with the open source base, but it’s also unethical.

This clause is highly comparable to the MS Windows licensing clause that forced PC manufacturers to pay for a Windows licence for every Windows-compatible PC they sold. It’s nasty.

James Bond Aston Martin DB5 Lego Expert Creator Set 

Among other gadgetry, it sports revolving number plates, retractable machine guns, and even a working ejector seat.

The Washington Post: ‘Amazon Continues to Profit From the Sale of White-Supremacist Propaganda’ 

Tracy Jan, reporting earlier this month for The Washington Post:

Shoppers can purchase Amazon.com merchandise displaying symbols of white supremacy, such as a swastika necklace, a baby onesie with a burning cross, and a child’s backpack featuring a neo-Nazi meme, all in contradiction of the retail giant’s policy against selling products that promote hatred, according to a new report from two watchdog groups.

Trump argues that The Washington Post is, under Jeff Bezos’s ownership, a propaganda mouthpiece for Amazon. It simply doesn’t register with Trump that Bezos would even consider allowing the Post to remain utterly editorially independent.

Uber Head of HR Liane Hornsey Resigns Following Discrimination Probe 

Salvador Rodriguez, reporting last week for Reuters:

Uber Technologies Inc’s Chief People Officer Liane Hornsey resigned in an email to staff on Tuesday, following an investigation into how she handled allegations of racial discrimination at the ride-hailing firm. […]

They alleged Hornsey had used discriminatory language and made derogatory comments about Uber Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion Bernard Coleman, and had denigrated and threatened former Uber executive Bozoma Saint John, who left the company in June.

“This person ultimately was the reason behind (Saint John’s) departure from Uber,” the anonymous employees said in an email, referring to Hornsey.

Saint John joined Uber from Apple Inc in June, 2017 but left only a year later to join Endeavor, the parent company of several talent agencies. She declined to comment, telling Reuters by phone: “I don’t have anything to say about my experience there.”

I thought it was curious when Saint John left Uber after just one year. Uber’s company culture remains disgraceful.

‘The Axis Is Constructive-Destructive’ 

Steve Jobs, in a 2010 conversation with Rupert Murdoch, in which Jobs told Murdoch he was “blowing it with Fox News”:

“The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive, and you’ve cast your lot with the destructive people. Fox has become an incredibly destructive force in our society. You can be better, and this is going to be your legacy if you’re not careful.”

I thought this was interesting in light of my comments yesterday regarding the power that Murdoch, by way of Fox News, holds over Donald Trump’s presidency.

This line from Jobs — “The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive” — is truly the best summary of Trumpism I’ve seen. Trump supporters aren’t conservatives, they just want to see the liberal world order burn down.

(Thanks to Chloe Deguzman.)

MacOS 10.14 Mojave Removes Subpixel Anti-Aliasing 

I was a huge fan of sub-pixel anti-aliasing back in the day (and in fact still have it enabled on 10.13), but it matters far more on non-retina displays than retina ones. I think it’s proper for Apple to focus on retina displays — and iOS has never supported sub-pixel anti-aliasing, which I can only guess factored into this decision with the introduction of UIKit apps running on MacOS — but they’re still selling the non-retina MacBook Air. I won’t issue a final judgment until Mojave actually ships, but I suspect most Air users are going to think this makes text look blurrier.

Update: Looks like you can still enable sub-pixel anti-aliasing with a Terminal command.

Supporting Michael Tsai’s Blog 

Michael Tsai:

I’ve been told this is overdue, but I’d like to ask you to help support this site financially. This is optional. I’m not creating a paywall, and I don’t want you to feel guilty if you aren’t able to help. But if you enjoy what I’m doing here, please consider joining via Patreon.

To be clear, I see this site as a labor of love. I’m not interested in making it more commercial or in giving up software development. I would like to keep it going more or less as it’s been: a personal site with a regular posting schedule. However, the writing does consume a substantial amount of my time, and I’m hoping that patronage will help me to justify that.

Tsai has long been one of my favorite bloggers and Mac developers. I conducted a long interview with Tsai back in 2003 — still an interesting read today. His blog is simply great, period — just look at how many great links are on his homepage right now — but where he truly stands apart are the times he assembles links to commentary from dozens of people on complex stories. Here’s a great example from last week on the updated MacBook Pros. I’m happy to support his continuing work.

Third-Generation MacBook Pro Keyboards Have a Protective Silicone Barrier 

Sam Lionhart, writing for iFixit:

Here’s an inflammatory take for you: Apple’s new quieter keyboard is actually a silent scheme to fix their keyboard reliability issues. We’re in the middle of tearing down the newest MacBook Pro, but we’re too excited to hold this particular bit of news back:

Apple has cocooned their butterfly switches in a thin, silicone barrier.

I think it’s a stretch to call this a “cover-up” or “inflammatory”, but it certainly gives credence to the theory that improved reliability was in fact a major design goal for this keyboard.

Popular Science: ‘Do You Really Need to Properly Eject a USB Drive Before Yanking It Out?’ 

Rob Verger, writing for Popular Science:

Pull a USB flash drive out of your Mac without first clicking to eject it, and you’ll get a stern, shameful warning: “Disk Not Ejected Properly.”

But do you really need to eject a thumb drive the right way?

Probably not. Just wait for it to finish copying your data, give it a few seconds, then yank. To be on the cautious side, be more conservative with external hard drives, especially the old ones that actually spin.

That’s not the official procedure, nor the most conservative approach. And in a worst-case scenario, you risk corrupting a file or — even more unlikely — the entire storage device.

This is terrible advice. It’s akin to saying you probably don’t need to wear a seat belt because it’s unlikely anything bad will happen. Imagine a few dozen people saying they drive without a seat belt every day and nothing’s ever gone wrong, so it must be OK. (The breakdown in this analogy is that with seat belts, you know instantly when you need to be wearing one. With USB drives, you might not discover for months or years that you’ve got a corrupt file that was only partially written to disk when you yanked the drive.)

I see a bunch of “just pull out the drive and not worry about it” Mac users on Twitter celebrating this article, and I don’t get it. On the Mac you have to do something on screen when you eject a drive. Either you properly eject it before unplugging the drive — one click in the Finder sidebar — or you need to dismiss the alert you’ll get about having removed a drive that wasn’t properly ejected. Why not take the course of action that guarantees data integrity?

NBC News: ‘Apple, Google Cashed in on Pizzagate-Offshoot Conspiracy App’ 

NBC News:

An app promoting a conspiracy theory featuring Hillary Clinton and a child sex ring lingered at the top of Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store for months, with both tech giants receiving a cut of the revenue in the process.

The app, called “QDrops,” sends alerts about a conspiracy theory called Qanon, an offshoot of the “pizzagate” fiction that claimed Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of a Washington pizza shop that didn’t even have a basement. Like many conspiracy theories, Qanon got its start on 4chan, an anonymous posting site that is a seedbed for extreme thought and a large number of online subcultures.

Apple removed the QDrops app from its app store on Sunday after inquiries from NBC News.

There’s a fine line between “right-wing news” and “dangerous conspiracies”, but App Store reviewers are there to make those calls. This is not a good look for Apple.

Apple Celebrates World Emoji Day With Preview of 70 New Emoji 

Apple Newsroom:

More than 70 new emoji characters are coming to iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and Mac later this year in a free software update. The new emoji designs, created based on approved characters in Unicode 11.0, include even more hair options to better represent people with red hair, gray hair and curly hair, a new emoji for bald people, and new smiley faces that bring more expression to Messages with a cold face, party face, pleading face and a face with hearts.

Apple is having some fun with their executive bio page too. (Screenshot archive.)

‘The Worst Case Scenario Has Been Obvious for a While’ 

Josh Marshall, writing at TPM:

There is no reasonable explanation for the simple facts we see other than that Russia has some kind of hold over President Trump.

I know that sounds wild and I have a very hard time sometimes quite believing it myself. But it’s so overwhelmingly obvious that we need to get real with ourselves and recognize what is happening. I don’t know what the specific details are. I don’t know whether Russia has some compromising information on the President, whether they have enticed him with personal enrichment. I truly don’t know. But none of the standard explanations — truculence, trolling, anger over questioning the legitimacy of his election — none of them remotely add up as an explanation. In the future, when we know more details, we will have a difficult time explaining how any serious people continued to think there could be an innocent explanation.

I don’t think it’s the infamous pee tape because even if real, the pee tape might not sink Trump. I think it’s money — that Trump’s entire company, and therefore his personal wealth, is held afloat entirely by Russian money and Putin could pull the plug on it with a snap of his fingers. But whatever it is, it seems clear there’s something they’ve got on him.

Fox News Host Calls Trump’s Helsinki Performance ‘Disgusting’, ‘Wrong’ 

TPM:

During his Fox Business Network show Monday, host Neil Cavuto called President Donald Trump’s failure to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin for the Russian interference in the 2016 election “disgusting,” saying that the presser “set us back a lot.”

“That made it disgusting. That made his performance disgusting,” Cavuto said of Trump’s refusal to even criticize the Russian President. “Only way I feel. Not a right or left thing to me. It is wrong.”

I’ve been thinking for a few months now that the most powerful person in the world isn’t Trump or Putin but Rupert Murdoch. If Fox News turned against Trump — not against Republicans, not against conservatives, but only against Trump and his family — it would sink Trump’s presidency within months. Politically, Trump couldn’t breathe without the support of Fox News. Rupert Murdoch could make that happen.

Hillary Clinton Was Right 

Hillary Clinton’s remarks during a 2016 debate on Donald Trump being a “puppet” of Vladimir Putin have proven depressingly spot-on. Everything she said in this clip has come to pass.

Trump Kowtows to Putin 

Jonathan Swan and Mike Allen, reporting for Axios:

Over the course of the press conference, Trump:

  • Sided with Russia over his own law enforcement.

  • Turned a question on Russian election interference into a rambling dialogue on Hillary Clinton’s email server and his electoral college votes.

  • And stood by, nodding, while Putin repeatedly lied about election interference.

John McCain:

Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. […]

No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.

Garry Kasparov:

I’m ready to call this the darkest hour in the history of the American presidency. Let me know if you can think of any competition. […]

Trump’s “We’re all to blame” says it all. Attacking his own administration and flattering Putin. America First? A sick joke. Where are Trump’s supporters right now? Where are you? You fools and enablers selling out your country and the world for this traitor?

Chuck Schumer:

Chuck Schumer said on Monday that Americans are wondering if the “only explanation” for President Donald Trump’s performance alongside Vladimir Putin is that the Russian president “holds damaging information over President Trump.”

Former CIA director John O. Brennan:

Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to and exceeds the threshold of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???

Brennan served under Obama, yes, but no former CIA director has ever once come close to accusing a subsequent president as a traitor. It is time to accept the plain truth before our eyes: Donald Trump is a Russian puppet.

Dan Coats, Trump’s own director of national intelligence:

The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the President and policymakers. We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.

Trump’s own DNI is telling us Trump is a traitor.

Microsoft’s Andromeda Project: A Bifold Pocketable Tablet 

Brad Sams, writing at, uh, “Thurrott”:

As of last year, Microsoft planned to ship Andromeda in late 2018 but as recently as a couple weeks ago, the company put the plans on ice. Mary Jo wrote last week that the bits needed for Andromeda would not make it into RS5 and she is absolutely correct in her assessment but there is more to the story. While some assumed that this means that the project is dead, what Microsoft is actually doing is sending it back to the labs to be significantly reworked.

And this makes sense, seeing as it would use an ARM processor, the best it could use this fall would be the Snapdragon 835, a chip that is from yesterday. We know that Qualcomm is working on new chips designed explicitly for PCs and it could arrive as early as the beginning of next year.

It is impossible to overstate how important Apple’s A-series chip development has been to the success of the iPhone and iPad. It allows them to evolve at Apple’s own pace. Qualcomm seemingly can’t keep up, and everyone else is dependent upon Qualcomm for high-end ARM chips. Apple’s current position in the mobile space is like if Microsoft and Intel had been rolled into one back in the PC heyday.

The problem that Microsoft has run into is that the Surface brand is now a premium product line and that they can’t risk releasing anything that will tarnish its reputation. If Andromeda were to be released and it was a complete flop, this could reflect negatively on the Surface brand and impact products like the Pro line that sell quite well.

I don’t buy this excuse at all. It’s not about the Surface brand (the esteem of which I think Sams overstates). It’s just a product that isn’t ready to go. There’s no shame in that — a foldable tablet that can fit in your pocket could be great but would be really hard to do well today given current display and battery technologies. I think a concept like this needs to be closer to the tablets the characters on Westworld use.

Journey Across Bhutan: The World’s First Carbon-Negative Country 

My thanks to Gray Langur Tours for sponsoring this week’s DF RSS feed. Gray Langur’s Kingdom of the Clouds Tour is a once-in-a-lifetime, all-inclusive, 2-week exploration of one of the world’s least accessible, yet astonishingly forward-thinking countries. Bhutan is the the only place where “Gross National Happiness” is more important than Gross National Product, and tourism is regulated with care.

On October 16, 2018, Gray Langur Tours will return to this fascinating Himalayan Kingdom for the third annual Royal Highlander Festival. Last year’s tour was a smashing success, and guests even got to meet Bhutan’s king.

An exotic location — the last surviving great Himalayan kingdom — with truly expert guides. Check out their website and see just how amazing Bhutan is. Gray Langur was founded by Gabriel Cubbage, who until last year was the CEO of AdBlock and whom I’ve known personally for over 10 years. He’s a great guy. I would love to hear from DF readers who take this tour (or who took last year’s tour).

Availability is extremely limited. Daring Fireball readers can use the code DARINGFIREBALL for a 10 percent discount.

Build-A-Bear Is a ‘Victim of Its Own Success’ as ‘Pay Your Age Day’ Ends in Chaos 

I love it when an honest, accurate, non-sensationalized headline is enough to make you laugh.


Apple Updates MacBook Pro Models With Touch Bar

Apple Newsroom:

Apple today updated MacBook Pro with faster performance and new pro features, making it the most advanced Mac notebook ever. The new MacBook Pro models with Touch Bar feature 8th-generation Intel Core processors, with 6-core on the 15-inch model for up to 70 percent faster performance and quad-core on the 13-inch model for up to two times faster performance — ideal for manipulating large data sets, performing complex simulations, creating multi-track audio projects or doing advanced image processing or film editing.

Already the most popular notebook for developers around the world, the new MacBook Pro can compile code faster and run multiple virtual machines and test environments easier than before. Additional updates include support for up to 32GB of memory, a True Tone display and an improved third-generation keyboard for quieter typing.

My top take-aways:

  • Today’s updates are indisputably aimed at genuine “pro” users. Only the high-end machines with the Touch Bar have been updated — the non-Touch-Bar 13-inch MacBook Pro (a.k.a. the MacBook Escape) and the just-plain MacBook are unchanged. Features like supporting 4 TB of SSD storage and 32 GB of RAM are not consumer features.

  • Only the new 15-inch MacBook Pro has the option of 32 GB of RAM. This makes sense — it’s a different Intel architecture that requires a bigger power supply and battery. The new 13-inch models still use LPDDR3 RAM; the new 15-inch models use DDR4 RAM.

  • These are the first Macs with True Tone displays. That’s not reason enough to upgrade for most people, but I’m so glad to see True Tone make its way to the Mac.

  • The big question on many people’s minds is the keyboards: Do they resolve the reliability issues that have surfaced ever since Apple switched to butterfly mechanisms? All Apple is saying is that the new keyboards were engineered to be quieter. But I think only time will tell whether the keyboards were also engineered to be more reliable. Maybe, as Apple says, the only problem they sought to solve was the noise. But, if they also sought to improve the reliability of the keyboards — to fix the problem where keys get stuck, among other problems — I think they would only admit to fixing the noise problem. Marketing-wise, I don’t think they would admit to a reliability problem in the existing butterfly keyboards (especially since they’re still selling second-generation keyboards in all non-TouchBar models), and legal-wise (given the fact that they’re facing multiple lawsuits regarding keyboard reliability) I don’t think they should admit to it. So whether they’ve attempted to address reliability problems along with the noise or not, I think they’d say the exact same thing today: only that they’ve made the keyboards quieter. I have no inside dope on this (yet?), but to me the reason for optimism is that they’re calling these keyboards “third-generation”, not just a quieter version of the second-generation butterfly-switch keyboards.

Apple held a hands-on event at their New York townhouse this week. I couldn’t make it, but Brian Heater at TechCrunch, Rene Ritchie at iMore, and Dieter Bohn at The Verge were there and all have good write-ups. 


Magic Leap Finally Demoed Its Headset and It Is Disappointing 

I’ve long been suspicious that the reason Magic Leap is so secretive about their actual technology is that it’s nowhere close to what they promised in their concept videos. This seems to confirm it.

I’ll go out on a limb and predict that this puff piece from Wired back in December — “It’s Time to Take Magic Leap Seriously” — is not going to age well.

iOS Devices Can Be Blocked From Entering USB Restricted Mode 

Oleg Afonin, writing for the ElcomSoft blog:

What we discovered is that iOS will reset the USB Restrictive Mode countdown timer even if one connects the iPhone to an untrusted USB accessory, one that has never been paired to the iPhone before (well, in fact the accessories do not require pairing at all). In other words, once the police officer seizes an iPhone, he or she would need to immediately connect that iPhone to a compatible USB accessory to prevent USB Restricted Mode lock after one hour. Importantly, this only helps if the iPhone has still not entered USB Restricted Mode.

Most (if not all) USB accessories fit the purpose — for example, Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter from Apple.

They think this might be tricky for Apple to fix:

Can Apple change it in future versions of iOS? To us, it seems highly unlikely simply because of the humongous amount of MFi devices that aren’t designed to support such a change. Theoretically, iOS could remember which devices were connected to the iPhone, and only allow those accessories to establish connectivity without requiring an unlock — but that’s about all we can think of.

10 Years of the App Store: The Design Evolution of the Earliest Apps 

Michael Steeber, writing for 9to5Mac:

Few contemporary innovations have changed how we live our lives and interact with the world around us more than iPhone apps. The creators of the first 500 available at launch had the unique opportunity of shaping the design direction and interaction methods of the millions of apps created since.

To celebrate the App Store’s 10th anniversary, let’s study the visual evolution of 10 original App Store apps.

Another great look back. Steeber selected a great group of apps from 2008 that are still going strong, and perfectly illustrates their design evolutions.

The App Store Turns 10 

There have been a slew of retrospectives marking the 10-year anniversary of the App Store, but Apple’s own is the most interesting I’ve seen.

Former Apple Employee Charged With Theft of Trade Secrets Related to Autonomous Car Project 

Juli Clover, writing for MacRumors:

In April 2018, Zhang took family leave from Apple following the birth of his child, and during that time, he visited China. Shortly after, he told his supervisor at Apple he was leaving the company and moving to China to work for XMotors, a Chinese startup that also focuses on autonomous vehicle technology. […]

A review of recorded footage at Apple indicated Zhang had visited the campus on the evening of Saturday, April 28, entering both Apple’s autonomous vehicle software and hardware labs, which coincided with data download times, and he left with a box of hardware.

In a second interview with Apple’s security team, Zhang admitted to taking both online data and hardware (a Linux server and circuit boards) from Apple during his paternity leave. He also admitted to AirDropping sensitive content from his own device to his wife’s laptop.

All of Apple’s evidence was relayed to the FBI after the company’s Digital Forensic Investigations team discovered that at least 60 percent of the data Zhang had downloaded and transferred to his wife’s computer was “highly problematic.” The FBI, in the court filing, describes the information as “largely technical in nature, including engineering schematics, technical reference manuals, and technical reports.”

Holy shit. This sounds like industrial espionage of the highest order. He was arrested at the San Jose airport on his way to China.

Apple Combines Machine Learning and Siri Teams Under John Giannandrea 

Matthew Panzarino, writing at TechCrunch:

Apple is creating a new AI/ML team that brings together its Core ML and Siri teams under one leader in John Giannandrea.

Apple confirmed this morning that the combined Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning team, which houses Siri, will be led by the recent hire, who came to Apple this year after an eight-year stint at Google, where he led the Machine Intelligence, Research and Search teams. Before that he founded Metaweb Technologies and Tellme.

The internal structures of the Siri and Core ML teams will remain the same, but they will now answer to Giannandrea.

This is exactly what I expected after they announced the hiring of Giannandrea. It takes Siri and ML off Craig Federighi’s plate, and allows Giannandrea to report directly to Tim Cook.

BGR: ‘Apple to Deploy 1Password to All 123,000 Employees, Acquisition Talks Underway’ 

Jonathan Geller, writing at BGR:

Apple acquires an average of 15 to 20 companies a year, according to CEO Tim Cook. Of that number, we only hear about a couple, as most of these acquisitions or aqcui-hires are not consumer-facing, nor disclosed. However, we have exclusively learned that Apple is planning an interesting partnership and a potential acquisition of AgileBits, maker of the popular password manager 1Password.

According to our source, after many months of planning, Apple plans to deploy 1Password internally to all 123,000 employees. This includes not just employees in Cupertino, but extends all the way to retail, too. Furthermore, the company is said to have carved out a deal that includes family plans, giving up to 5 family members of each employee a free license for 1Password.

Great news and a resounding endorsement of 1Password for AgileBits. But if Apple thinks 1Password is this good, an acquisition seems like an obvious next step.

It seems clear this leak came from AgileBits, though, which seems dumb on the part of whoever blabbed. The first rule of getting acquired by Apple is you don’t talk about getting acquired by Apple.

Update 1: Statement from 1Password on Twitter:

Rumours of my acquisition are completely false. My humans and I are happily independent and plan to remain so.

The more I think about it, the weirder this story seems. Why would Apple encourage employees to use a third-party password manager — even a great one like 1Password — over the system Keychain? If the Keychain isn’t good enough they should make the Keychain better.

iOS 11.4.1 Blocks USB Passcode Cracking Tools 

Chris Welch, writing for The Verge:

Apple today released iOS 11.4.1, and while most of us are already looking ahead to all the new stuff coming in iOS 12, this small update contains an important new security feature: USB Restricted Mode. Apple has added protections against the USB devices being used by law enforcement and private companies that connect over Lightning to crack an iPhone’s passcode and evade Apple’s usual encryption safeguards.

Great news and an elegant solution.

NYT: ‘How Smart TVs in Millions of U.S. Homes Track More Than What’s on Tonight’ 

Sapna Maheshwari, writing for The New York Times:

Once enabled, Samba TV can track nearly everything that appears on the TV on a second-by-second basis, essentially reading pixels to identify network shows and ads, as well as programs on Netflix and HBO and even video games played on the TV. Samba TV has even offered advertisers the ability to base their targeting on whether people watch conservative or liberal media outlets and which party’s presidential debate they watched.

The big draw for advertisers — which have included Citi and JetBlue in the past, and now Expedia — is that Samba TV can also identify other devices in the home that share the TV’s internet connection.

Creepy as hell. No thanks.

Intel’s Toxic Culture 

Jean-Louis Gassée:

Just as old Cultures can no longer “see” their origins, Intel pushed under its consciousness the true source of the x86’s superiority: The margins it commanded through the Windows monopoly. Better manufacturing technology became Intel’s “conscious” explanation, but the truth was that in the PC era, non-Windows microprocessors simply couldn’t compete and had to settle for lower prices. The worst part of the Culture dictate is that Intel believed its own story, at least until it stopped working as interlopers such as TSMC came up with competitive technology. How else to explain their sale of their ARM-centered Xscale to Marvell in 2006?

Quartz: ‘Apple’s AirPods and Live Listen Are a Revolution for the Hearing Impaired’ 

Looking forward to more stories like this once iOS 12 is out of beta.

Kolide 

My thanks to Kolide for once again sponsoring the DF RSS feed. Kolide is a new startup working to solve the security challenges of tech companies that run large Mac fleets.

Last year, Netflix blogged about a great internal tool called Stethoscope which helped their security team communicate the key settings they expect their employees to manage instead of relying on intrusive enforcement. They termed this concept “User Focused Security”.

Kolide recently released Kolide Cloud, which enables you to roll out this User Focused Security strategy and effectively communicate your organization’s Mac security best-practices to your users.

Additionally, Kolide Cloud can detect and alert you about situational security concerns in your Mac fleet that often lead to serious compromises. Kolide looks for improperly stored 2FA backup codes, evidence of unencrypted backups, browser extensions that subvert the privacy of your users, and a litany of other issues that you will want to shut down immediately.

Kolide Cloud is free for your first 10 devices and you can sign up today.

‘In Search of Steve Ditko’ 

Steve Ditko, the reclusive co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, died yesterday at 90. This documentary from around 10 years ago for the BBC by Jonathan Ross is a terrific look at his life and work.

WSJ: ‘Samsung Estimates Operating-Profit Growth at 5 Percent, Short of Expectations’ 

Timothy Martin, reporting for The Wall Street Journal:

Sales of the company’s latest flagship device, the Galaxy S9, have been weak, as consumers keep their phones longer and remain unimpressed with the newest options.

Lee Seung-woo, a Seoul-based analyst at Eugene Investment and Securities, expects Samsung will ship about 31 million Galaxy S9 devices in 2018. That would mark a dramatic decline from just two years ago, when the Galaxy S7 became Samsung’s best-selling phone ever, with roughly 50 million shipments.

Imagine the hysteria if flagship iPhone sales dropped 40 percent in two years.

I’m not so sure that the S9 is particularly “unimpressive” compared to previous Samsung phones so much as that other high-end Android handsets have caught up. I think what’s happening to Samsung is what many thought would happen to the iPhone circa 2013 — they’re losing sales to “good enough” phones from a dozen other Android makers from around the world. Even the high-end Android market is turning into a commodity market.

iOS is the moat that separates Apple from the pack, just like MacOS is in the PC market. Samsung doesn’t really have a moat. If anything, their proprietary software is worse than the off-the-shelf Android from Google. What’s the argument for buying an S9 instead of, say, a Pixel or OnePlus or whatever else has a great display and camera?

Twitter Is Shutting Down a Million Fake Accounts Per Day 

Craig Timberg and Elizabeth Dwoskin, reporting for The Washington Post:

Twitter has sharply escalated its battle against fake and suspicious accounts, suspending more than 1 million a day in recent months, a major shift to lessen the flow of disinformation on the platform, according to data obtained by The Washington Post.

The rate of account suspensions, which Twitter confirmed to The Post, has more than doubled since October, when the company revealed under congressional pressure how Russia used fake accounts to interfere in the U.S. presidential election. Twitter suspended more than 70 million accounts in May and June, and the pace has continued in July, according to the data.

I understand that “monthly active users” count has been a major metric that investors have used to value Twitter. But it’s a failure of Twitter’s executive team that they allowed the company to be painted into a corner where the company benefitted by looking the other way at large scale fraud because of an inflated “user” count.

Twitter’s executives should’ve started hammering home the point years ago that monthly active users is a legitimate metric, but monthly active accounts is not, and that in fact fake accounts are detrimental to the health of Twitter’s social network. Better late than never, but this should’ve started years ago.


Google Demos Duplex

Google has finally done what they should’ve done initially: let a group of journalists (two groups actually, one on each coast) actually listen to and participate in live Duplex calls.

Heather Kelly, writing for CNN:

For one minute and ten seconds on Tuesday, I worked in a trendy hummus shop and took a reservation from a guy who punctuated his sentences with “awesome” and “um.”

“Hi, I’m calling to make a reservation,” the caller said, sounding a lot like a stereotypical California surfer. Then he came clean: “I’m Google’s automated booking service, so I’ll record the call. Um, can I book a table for Saturday?”

The guy was Google Duplex, the AI-assisted assistant that made a stir in May when CEO Sundar Pichai unveiled it at its Google I/O developer conference. That demo, shown in a slick video, was so impressive that some people said it had to be fake.

Not so, says Google, which invited clusters of reporters to Oren’s Hummus Shop near its campus in Mountain View, for a hands-on demonstration. Each of us got to field an automated call and test the system’s limits.

But, regarding the curious recordings played on stage at I/O in early May:

Scott Huffman, the VP of engineering for Google Assistant, conceded that the demo at I/O in May “maybe made it look a little too polished.” That’s because Pichai tends to focus on Google’s grand visions for the future, Huffman said.

Ron Amadeo, writing for Ars Technica:

Unfortunately, Google would not let us record the live interactions this week, but it did provide a video we’ve embedded below. The robo call in the video is, honestly, perfectly representative of what we experienced. But to allay some of the skepticism out there, let’s first outline the specifics of how this demo was set up along with what worked and what didn’t. […]

During the demonstration period, things went much more according to plan. Over the course of the event, we heard several calls, start to finish, handled over a live phone system. To start, a Google rep went around the room and took reservation requirements from the group, things like “What time should the reservation be for?” or “How many people?” Our requirements were punched into a computer, and the phone soon rang. Journalists — err, restaurant employees — could dictate the direction of the call however they so choose. Some put in an effort to confuse Duplex and throw it some curveballs, but this AI worked flawlessly within the very limited scope of a restaurant reservation.

Here’s the video Google has provided. It is indeed an impressive approximation of a human speaking. One thing that stands out, in fact, is the difference between the artificial voice of the Google Assistant on the woman’s phone — no um’s, no ah’s, robotically precise — and the decidedly un-robotic voice of Duplex on the phone call.

Regarding the actual rollout to actual users, some unspecific number of “trusted testers” will get access to Duplex very soon, but only for asking about restaurant hours, not making reservations — and the haircut appointment feature has no delivery date other than “later” and wasn’t demonstrated to the media.

Dieter Bohn, writing at The Verge:

If you’re hoping that means you’ll be able to try it yourself, sorry: Google is starting with “a set of trusted tester users,” according to Nick Fox, VP of product and design for the Google Assistant. It will also be limited to businesses that Google has partnered with rather than any old restaurant.

The rollout will be phased, in other words. First up will be calls about holiday hours, then restaurant reservations will come later this summer, and then finally hair cut appointments will be last. Those are the only three domains that Google has trained Duplex on.

Bohn on the speech quality:

The more natural, human-sounding voice wasn’t there in the very first prototypes that Google built (amusingly, they worked by setting a literal handset on the speaker on a laptop). According to VP of engineering for the Google Assistant Scott Huffman, “It didn’t work. …. we got a lot of hangups, we got a lot of incompletion of the task. People didn’t deal well with how unnatural it sounded.”

Part of making it sound natural enough to not trigger an aural sense of the uncanny valley was adding those ums and ahs, which Huffman identified as “speech disfluencies.” He emphasized that they weren’t there to trick anybody, but because those vocal tics “play a key part in progressing a conversation between humans.” He says it came from a well-known branch of linguistics called “pragmatics,” which encompasses all the non-word communications that happen in human speech: the ums, the ahs, the hand gestures, etc.

I’m on the fence regarding the issue of whether it is ethical for Duplex to speak in a way that sounds so human-like that the person on the other end of the call might never realize they’re speaking to a bot. What raises a flag are the injected imperfections. If they’re good for Duplex to use while making a call, why doesn’t Google Assistant speak similarly when you, the user, know you’re talking to a bot?

The fact that they started getting fewer hangups when they added these natural-sounding imperfections makes sense. But it’s disingenuous to say they’re not using these um’s and ah’s to trick the person into thinking it’s a human. That’s exactly what they’re doing. The problem is, tricking sounds devious. I’m not sure it is in this case. It’s just making the person on the call more comfortable. We use “tricks” in all of our technology. Motion pictures, to name one example, don’t actually move — they’re just a series of still images played quickly enough to fool our eyes into seeing motion.

With or without Duplex’s involvement, the restaurant is going to get a phone call for the reservation. (Duplex doesn’t make phone calls for restaurants that support online booking through OpenTable — at least not if the device user has an OpenTable account.) Based on these examples, Duplex doesn’t seem to waste the restaurant’s time — the phone calls take about the same time as they would if you, the human, made the call yourself. So neither the restaurant nor the employee who answers the phone lose anything when a call is made by Duplex, whether they realize they’re talking to an AI or not. No one is getting cheated, as in the case with, say, bots that play online poker.

To me, the truly difficult ethical questions are years down the road, when these AI’s get close to passing an open-ended Turing test.

Lauren Goode, writing at Wired:

I then asked whether there were any allergies in the group. “OK, so, 7:30,” the bot said. “No, I can fit you in at 7:45,” I said. The bot was confused. “7:30,” it said again. I also asked whether they would need a high chair for any small children. Another voice eventually interjected, and completed the reservation.

I hung up the phone feeling somewhat triumphant; my stint in college as a host at a brew house had paid off, and I had asked a series of questions that a bot, even a good one, couldn’t answer. It was a win for humans. “In that case, the operator that completed the call — that wasn’t a human, right?” I asked Nygaard. No, she said. That was a human who took over the call. I was stunned; in the end, I was still a human who couldn’t differentiate between a voice powered by silicon and one born of flesh and blood.

It’s a shame that Google wouldn’t release the recordings of the calls the journalists answered. Goode’s anecdote above, to me, is the most fascinating of the bunch, and I’d love to hear it. She was able to trip up the logic of Duplex by asking about allergies and high chairs, but was unable to discern when an actual human took over the call. Google’s breakthrough isn’t how smart Duplex is, but how human-like it sounds.

I still think the whole thing feels like a demo of a technology (the human-like speech), not a product. Google claimed this week that Duplex currently succeeds 4 out of 5 times at placing a reservation without a human operator’s intervention. That’s a good batting average for a demo, but untenable for a shipping product at Google’s scale. With a 20 percent failure rate, Google would need an army of human operators standing by all day long, to support a feature they don’t make any money from. I’m skeptical that this will ever be a product expanded to wide use, and if it is, it might be years away. Google said as much to Ars Technica:

“We’re actually quite a long way from launch, that’s the key thing to understand,” Fox explained at the meeting. “This is super-early technology, somewhere between technology demo and product. We’re talking about this way earlier than we typically talk about products.”

Right now it feels like a feature in search of a product, but they pitched it as an imminent product at I/O because it made for a stunning demo. (It remains the only thing announced at I/O that anyone is talking about.) If what Google really wanted was just for Google Assistant to be able to make restaurant reservations, they’d be better off building an OpenTable competitor and giving it away to all these small businesses that don’t yet offer online reservations. I’m not holding my breath for Duplex ever to allow anyone to make a reservation at any establishment. 


10 Strikes and You’re Out — the iOS Feature You’re Probably Not Using But Should

For many years now, iOS has offered an option in the Passcode section of the Settings app: “Erase all data on this iPhone after 10 failed passcode attempts.”

I’ve long been intrigued by this setting, but never turned it on, out of the vague fear that something could happen and I’d wind up with a wiped iPhone. Say, if a “friend” surreptitiously took my phone at a bar and entered 10 wrong passcodes as a prank. Something like that.

I asked on Twitter over the weekend how many people use this feature, and over 4,000 people responded to the poll. One-third use the feature, two-thirds don’t. Among those who don’t, the most common response, by far, is that they don’t use it because they’re the parents of young children, and they fear that their kids will trigger the erasure of their phone.

I had no idea until I looked into it last weekend, but it turns out this feature is far more clever than I realized, and it’s highly unlikely that your kids or jackass drinking buddies could ever trigger it. After the 5th failed attempt, iOS requires a 1-minute timeout before you can try again. During this timeout the only thing you can do is place an emergency call to 911. After the 6th attempt, you get a 5-minute timeout. After the 7th, 15 minutes. These timeouts escalate such that it would take over 3 hours to enter 10 incorrect passcodes.

[Update: 3 hours is incorrect. According to Apple’s own iOS Security Guide (page 15), it would take one hour and 36 minutes. Attempts 1-4 are “free”. There’s a 1-minute delay before the 5th attempt, 5 minutes before the 6th, 15 minutes before the 7th and 8th, and a 60-minute delay before the 10th.]

It seems pretty clear from the responses to my poll that I wasn’t alone in thinking that this feature was more dangerous than it really is. I’ve got it turned on now, and I can’t think of a good reason why anyone wouldn’t enable this.