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.

CTech: ‘Apple Passes Over Intel in Search for Chips for Future iPhone’ 

Yoav Stoler, reporting for Israeli news site CTech:

Intel will not provide Wi-Fi and Bluetooth components for Apple’s 2020 mobile devices, according to internal company communications reviewed by Calcalist, and people familiar with the matter. Apple has notified Intel it would not use a mobile communication component developed by the chipmaker in its next-generation mobile device, Intel executives said. Further development of the component internally called “Sunny Peak” has been halted and the Intel team that’s working on the product will be redirected to other efforts, the executives said.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Sunny Peak component also included 5G connectivity.

Watching Intel in the mobile space is like watching someone try to start a fire with a wet matchbook.

Scott Pruitt Wasn’t Corrupt Enough for Trumpistan 

Rick Wilson, writing at The Daily Beast:

Donald Trump is unequivocal proof that A’s hire B’s and B’s hire C’s, and Trump hires people without the judgment, qualifications, ethical foundations, and moral stature to run an underground bum-fighting operation. Scott Pruitt’s obvious money problems should have screamed out in any background check, to say nothing of a Senate confirmation hearing.

Pruitt is a man, like so many of Trump’s claque of low-rent hoodlums, bus-station conmen, edge-case dead-enders, and caged-immigrant child porn aficionados, utterly unsuited to a role of public trust and responsibility.

I enjoy a column that works “bum-fighting” and “claque” into consecutive paragraphs.

How the Disposable Straw Explains Modern Capitalism 

Alexis Madrigal on the history of the disposable drinking straw. Fascinating — seriously.

News Media Paid Melania Trump Thousands for Use of Photos in ‘Positive Stories Only’ 

NBC News:

President Donald Trump’s most recent financial disclosure reveals that in 2017 the first lady earned at least $100,000 from Getty Images for the use of any of a series of 187 photos of the first family shot between 2010 and 2016 by Belgian photographer Regine Mahaux.

It’s not unheard of for celebrities to earn royalties from photos of themselves, but it’s very unusual for the wife of a currently serving elected official. More problematic for the many news organizations that have published or broadcast the images, however, is that Getty’s licensing agreement stipulates the pictures can be used in “positive stories only.”

The nonstop grift continues.

Rumored 18-Watt USB-C iPhone Power Adapter 

Eric Slivka, writing for MacRumors:

Recent rumors and CAD renderings have suggested Apple may be planning to include an 18-watt USB-C charger and a Lightning to USB cable in the box with its iOS devices later this year, allowing for faster charging without requiring users to purchase separate charging accessories at additional cost.

Moving to a single 18-watt adapter for iPhones and iPads makes a lot of sense. Wired charging for the fastest charge, inductive charging pads for the most convenient.

Also, I know a lot of people — including me — thought Apple should’ve included a faster iPad-style adapter last year because the iPhones X and 8 support fast charging. But when I last mentioned this, I heard from a slew of readers who prefer the 5-watt iPhone charger because it’s smaller. This new design seems like a nice compromise in terms of size.

Steven Sinofsky on Intel and Disruption 

Steven Sinofsky:

So first thing, if innovation is focused on first and foremost being proprietary vs solving problems people have, then I think you’ll always run into trouble.

The Talk Show: ‘Resources Up the Yang’ 

Special guest Matthew Panzarino returns to the show to talk about his exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the new maps coming to Apple Maps, Google’s project Duplex, and the MacBook keyboard repair program.

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Apple Is Rebuilding Maps From the Ground Up 

Matthew Panzarino, writing at TechCrunch:

I’m not sure if you’re aware, but the launch of Apple Maps went poorly. After a rough first impression, an apology from the CEO, several years of patching holes with data partnerships and some glimmers of light with long-awaited transit directions and improvements in business, parking and place data, Apple Maps is still not where it needs to be to be considered a world class service.

Maps needs fixing.

Apple, it turns out, is aware of this, so it’s re-building the maps part of Maps.

It’s doing this by using first-party data gathered by iPhones with a privacy-first methodology and its own fleet of cars packed with sensors and cameras. The new product will launch in San Francisco and the Bay Area with the next iOS 12 Beta and will cover Northern California by fall.

Panzarino was granted some extraordinary access, including an interview with Eddy Cue and a ride in one of Apple’s sensor-packed street vans. The new maps sound great, but the big question is how long will it take to roll them out everywhere. All Apple will say is that they’re starting with San Francisco next week (for iOS 12 beta users) and “northern California this fall”.

See also:Questions About Apple’s New Maps, Answered”.

Field Notes: ‘Three Missions’ Edition 

My thanks to Field Notes for sponsoring this week’s DF RSS feed to promote their just-launched [Ed. Note: Come on, we don’t do puns here.] “Three Missions” edition celebrating America’s quest 50 years ago to land men on the moon — and bring them home.

Look, I’m a huge fan of Field Notes, and I have an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for the early NASA missions. (I feel America today is in dire need of something epic that the entire nation could get behind.) So I was bound to love this edition. But man, I’m telling you, the Field Notes crew went above and beyond on this set.

Each three-pack contains three memo books, one each for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. The full-color printing quality is amazing, including “Orbital Silver” metallic ink. Each pack also includes three “Punch-Out and Assemble” mission-specific crew capsule models. I loved putting these things together — and I also love how they hearken back to the ’60s and ’70s, when punch-out model kits like these were common.

Where it gets downright nuts is the promotional video they made. They put in what must have been a ridiculous amount of planning, research, and driving to get about five seconds of footage of one of these models in the upper atmosphere in near-space.

You can buy the “Three Missions” three-pack for just $12.95. Start a quarterly subscription with “Three Missions” and your first shipment will also include two 3-Packs of their original Kraft Memo Books and their “Tenth Anniversary” 3-Pack. This special edition features very early iterations of what would eventually become Field Notes, with all their faults and weirdness.

Apple Eyes Streaming Bundle for TV, Music, and News 

Jessica Toonkel, reporting for The Information:

Apple is considering creating a single subscription offering that would encompass its original TV shows, music service and magazine articles, two people familiar with the company’s plans told The Information.

Such an ambitious offering would bear some similarity to Amazon’s Prime service, which spans video, music and some news. Yet it would be sharply different from many other subscription media services, which tend to be focused on one specific entertainment area.

I have no inside information on this, but as I’ve argued here, a single “content” subscription from Apple makes sense.

‘Inside Facebook and Twitter’s Secret Meetings With Trump Aides and Conservative Leaders Who Say Tech Is Biased’ 

Tony Romm, reporting for The Washington Post:

Dorsey hoped to use the dinner as a way to build “trust” among conservatives who have long chastised the company, three of the people said. He defended Twitter against accusations that it targeted right-leaning users unfairly but still admitted that the company has room for improvement, according to the attendees.

In response, the Twitter executive heard an earful from conservatives gathered at the table, who scoffed at the fact that Dorsey runs a platform that’s supposed to be neutral even though he’s tweeted about issues like immigration, gay rights and national politics. They also told Dorsey that the tech industry’s efforts to improve diversity — after years of criticism for maintaining a largely white, male workforce — should focus on hiring engineers with more diverse political viewpoints as well, according to those who dined with him in D.C.

Two points on this. First, statistically, you can’t increase the number of non-whites and women without skewing your workforce to the left politically. Look at the exit poll numbers from 2016:

  • Race: Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians went heavily for Clinton, whites went for Trump.
  • Gender: Women went for Clinton, men went for Trump.
  • LGBT voters went for Clinton by 78-14.
  • Education: College grads went for Clinton, non-college grads for Trump.

There’s no way around it: increasing the number of employees who aren’t straight white men is at odds with the notion of increasing the number “with more diverse political viewpoints”, if by “diverse political viewpoints” you mean “people who voted for Trump”. And even among white men, Trump was only +4 among those with college degrees.

Second, how in the world would tech companies go about hiring based on political viewpoints? By asking job candidates who they voted for? That seems like a terrible idea and likely illegal.

Apple, Samsung Settle U.S. Patent Dispute 

Stephen Nellis, reporting for Reuters:

Apple Inc and Samsung Electronics Co Ltd on Wednesday settled a seven-year patent dispute over Apple’s allegations that Samsung violated its patents by “slavishly” copying the design of the iPhone. Terms of the settlement, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, were not available.

In May, a U.S. jury awarded Apple $539 million, after Samsung had previously paid Apple $399 million to compensate for patent infringement. Samsung would need to make an additional payment to Apple of nearly $140 million if the verdict was upheld. How much, if anything, Samsung must now pay Apple under Wednesday’s settlement could not immediately be learned.

Here’s one that legitimately deserves to be filed under “Finally” — Apple first began litigating this 7 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. 


Adam Lashinsky Interviews Tim Cook at Fortune’s CEO Initiative 

Really interesting interview, with Cook giving his perspective on how he views his job as CEO. (Kind of goes off the rails at the very end, when they take a few questions from the audience. Questions from the audience almost never go well — they interrupt the conversational flow.)

Jason Snell on MacOS Mojave 

Long, detailed look at Mac OS 10.14 Mojave from Jason Snell:

Personally, I’m more excited about macOS Mojave than any recent macOS beta. The new dark mode alone is a huge change in what we have come to think of as the Mac interface, and the changes to Finder have an awful lot of potential. I’m also really happy to be able to control my HomeKit devices directly from my Mac, either via the Home app or Siri.

I’m really excited about the improved Automator support in the Finder. It’s a real “This is what makes the Mac the Mac” feature.

Marzipan as a Path to ARM-Based Macs 

Gus Mueller:

Apple has dropped legacy frameworks very easily in the past though. But how exactly did that happen?

CPU changes. Once when MacOS went from PPC to Intel, and then once when MacOS went from 32 bit to 64 bit. Each time that transition happened Apple was able to say “OK, this legacy stuff just isn’t going to be there on the new architecture”. And since you had to recompile apps anyway to make them run on the new architecture, developers kind of shrugged and said “Well, yea. That’s what I would have done too”. It made sense.

So are we about to see 128 bit Intel processors anytime soon, to facilitate this change? I doubt it.

OK then, what about a new architecture?

Oh. Hello 64 bit ARM.

MacStories’s Favorite iOS 12 Tidbits 

Federico Viticci:

Previously available only on 3D Touch-enabled iPhones or with a two-finger swipe on the iPad’s keyboard, trackpad mode can be activated in a much easier way in iOS 12: just tap & hold on the space bar until the keyboard becomes a trackpad. This mode (seemingly inspired by Gboard and other custom keyboards with a similar implementation) gives owners of iPhones without 3D Touch a way to more precisely control the cursor in text fields. Those who follow Apple rumors claim this feature has been shipped in preparation for a new iPhone without 3D Touch later this year; for now, it’s just a nice way to toggle trackpad mode if you’re using an iPhone 5s, SE, or 6.

One of my favorite features in iOS — once you get in the habit of using it, you can’t go back.

Instagram Launches IGTV 

Instagram:

Today, we have two big announcements to share. First, Instagram is now a global community of one billion! Since our launch in 2010, we’ve watched with amazement as the community has flourished and grown. This is a major accomplishment — so from all of us at Instagram, thank you!

Second, we’re announcing our most exciting feature to date: IGTV, a new app for watching long-form, vertical video from your favorite Instagram creators, like LaurDIY posting her newest project or King Bach sharing his latest comedy skit. While there’s a stand-alone IGTV app, you’ll also be able to watch from within the Instagram app so the entire community of one billion can use it from the very start.

Vertical video just seems weird to me, but I wouldn’t bet against IGTV. As Kevin Systrom succinctly explained on stage at the event introducing IGTV, teenagers consume video differently, and for many, the phone is their most important screen for watching video. Instagram has built up its own universe of celebrities. It feels like Instagram is to today’s teens what MTV was to my generation.

Two Keyboards at a Bar 

Michael Lopp:

The bar is full. Two keyboards sit at the bar: APPLE EXTENDED II and MACBOOK PRO. The front door opens, TOUCHBAR looks around, sees the two keyboards at the bar, grins, and heads their direction. Skipping.

APPLE EXTENDED II sits at the bar nursing a Macallan 18. Next to him is MACBOOK PRO who has not taken a sip of his glass of water.

I enjoyed this so much.

Apple News Launches 2018 Midterm Elections Section 

Apple Newsroom:

“Today more than ever people want information from reliable sources, especially when it comes to making voting decisions,” said Lauren Kern, editor-in-chief of Apple News. “An election is not just a contest; it should raise conversations and spark national discourse. By presenting quality news from trustworthy sources and curating a diverse range of opinions, Apple News aims to be a responsible steward of those conversations and help readers understand the candidates and the issues.”

Curation has been a guiding principle across Apple News since launch, with a team of editors focused on discovering and spotlighting well-sourced fact-based stories to provide readers with relevant, reliable news and information from a wide range of publishers.

“Well-sourced fact-based stories” — that’s pretty clearly meant as a fundamental point of distinction from Facebook and Twitter’s algorithmic news feeds. I find myself using Apple News a lot, and feel like Daring Fireball is overdue to support it better.

Snap Kit by Snapchat 

My thanks to Snap for sponsoring this week’s DF RSS feed. Snap Kit lets developers integrate some of Snapchat’s best features like Bitmoji and Stories — and lets your community share their favorite moments from your app with their friends on Snapchat.

All of this without compromising any private account data. Visit kit.snapchat.com for documentation and more info.

Casey Johnston on Apple’s MacBook Keyboard Repair Program 

Casey Johnston, writing for The Outline:

Apple did not immediately return a request from this reporter for comments on whether repairs may now be done on site at stores to shorten the time customers must be without their computers; whether the keyboard design has changed such that a repair may eliminate the problem rather than prop up a faulty design; or whether Apple anticipates releasing updated hardware that is not so prone to failure at any point in the future. Perhaps their keyboards, too, are broken.

I can’t recall any Apple related story that one writer has owned the way Johnston has owned this MacBook keyboard story.

Apple Launches Keyboard Service Program for MacBook and MacBook Pro 

New Apple support document:

Apple has determined that a small percentage of the keyboards in certain MacBook and MacBook Pro models may exhibit one or more of the following behaviors:

  • Letters or characters repeat unexpectedly
  • Letters or characters do not appear
  • Key(s) feel “sticky” or do not respond in a consistent manner

Apple or an Apple Authorized Service Provider will service eligible MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboards, free of charge. The type of service will be determined after the keyboard is examined and may involve the replacement of one or more keys or the whole keyboard.

If you’ve paid for service that seems like it should have been covered by this program, you should get in touch with Apple.

Gurman on AirPower 

Mark Gurman, in a Bloomberg piece headlined “Why Apple’s AirPower Wireless Charger Is Taking So Long to Make”:

An executive at an Apple partner that manufactures third-party wireless chargers for iPhones, who asked not to be identified, said the multi-device charging mechanism is challenging to build because it likely requires different sized charging components for the three types of devices, which would all overlap across the mat.

The AirPower charger is also more advanced than the current competition because it includes a custom Apple chip running a stripped down version of the iOS mobile operating system to conduct on-device power management and pairing with devices. Apple engineers have also been working to squash bugs related to the on-board firmware, according to the people familiar. They asked not to be identified discussing a product that hasn’t been released yet.

Why in the world did they announce this last September when they clearly still aren’t close to shipping it today? Also: Gurman’s story doesn’t answer the question, other than saying “It’s a complicated product”.


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.

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.