Linked List: March 2021

Rachel Levine: America’s First Openly Transgender Federal Official to Win Senate Confirmation 

David Crary, reporting last week for The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Voting mostly along party lines, the U.S. Senate has confirmed former Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine to be the nation’s assistant secretary of health. She is the first openly transgender federal official to win Senate confirmation.

The final vote Wednesday was 52-48. Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine joined all Democrats in supporting Levine.

Levine had been serving as Pennsylvania’s top health official since 2017, and emerged as the public face of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. She is expected to oversee Health and Human Services offices and programs across the U.S.

It takes courage and a thick skin to be a trailblazer like Levine. She’s more than qualified for this position — the votes against her are as shameful as they are transparent. I’m so proud that she’s from Pennsylvania.

President Biden, today:

Today, we honor and celebrate the achievements and resiliency of transgender individuals and communities. Transgender Day of Visibility recognizes the generations of struggle, activism, and courage that have brought our country closer to full equality for transgender and gender non-binary people in the United States and around the world. Their trailblazing work has given countless transgender individuals the bravery to live openly and authentically. This hard-fought progress is also shaping an increasingly accepting world in which peers at school, teammates and coaches on the playing field, colleagues at work, and allies in every corner of society are standing in support and solidarity with the transgender community.

Living openly and authentically shouldn’t require bravery. Today it does; someday, it won’t.

The Talk Show: ‘Toaster Fridgey’ 

Rene Ritchie returns to the show to speculate about pending Apple product announcements and events. Lots of guessing, no wagering.

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Apple Is Adding Two New American English Voices for Siri 

Matthew Panzarino, writing for TechCrunch:

Apple is adding two new voices to Siri’s English offerings, and eliminating the default “female voice” selection in the latest beta version of iOS. This means that every person setting up Siri will choose a voice for themselves and it will no longer default to the voice assistant being female, a topic that has come up quite a bit with regards to bias in voice interfaces over the past few years.

As Panzarino notes, in some countries, like the U.K., Siri’s default voice is male, not female. So “Why is Siri’s default voice female?” is not applicable worldwide. And my hunch has always been that the defaults in each country were selected by perceived quality. But making this an explicit choice during setup is the right answer — take the question of cultural bias out of the equation.

I believe that this is the first of these assistants to make the choice completely agnostic with no default selection made. This is a positive step forward as it allows people to choose the voice that they prefer without the defaults bias coming into play. The two new voices also bring some much needed variety to the voices of Siri, offering more diversity in speech sound and pattern to a user picking a voice that speaks to them. […]

“We’re excited to introduce two new Siri voices for English speakers and the option for Siri users to select the voice they want when they set up their device,” a statement from Apple reads. “This is a continuation of Apple’s long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion, and products and services that are designed to better reflect the diversity of the world we live in.”

Here’s a screen recording I made of the new lineup of voices. Both new voices are very good. Interestingly, in addition to adding the two new voices, the Siri preferences no longer label any of the voices as “male” or “female” — they’re just “Voice 1” … “Voice 4”. That makes it harder to remember which one is which, but, it opens the door to nonbinary voices in a future update. There’s no reason Siri’s voice needs to be decidedly male or female. The diversity of the two new voices is subtle, but they don’t label them as such. You either hear it or don’t. The same could be true for the gender of future new voices.

I wonder too if the order is randomized? There doesn’t seem to be a pattern to how mine are ordered, and randomizing the order would further eliminate bias before each user makes their choice. Update: I checked with Apple and they confirmed: the order of voices is randomized (voices 1 and 4 are the existing ones, 2 and 3 are the new ones). It’s the same order on everyone’s device, but the order was chosen to mix old and new.

15 Million Johnson & Johnson COVID Vaccine Doses Spoiled by Factory Screwup 

Sharon LaFraniere and Noah Weiland, reporting for The New York Times:

Workers at a Baltimore plant manufacturing two coronavirus vaccines accidentally conflated the vaccines’ ingredients several weeks ago, ruining about 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine and forcing regulators to delay authorization of the plant’s production lines.

The plant is run by Emergent BioSolutions, a manufacturing partner to both Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. Federal officials attributed the mistake to human error. […]

The mistake is a major embarrassment for Johnson & Johnson, whose one-dose vaccine has been credited with speeding up the national immunization program. It does not affect Johnson & Johnson doses that are currently being delivered and used nationwide. All those doses were produced in the Netherlands, where operations have been fully approved by federal regulators.

“Pilot of Ever Given Takes New Job at Baltimore Vaccine Plant”.

Jason Snell: ‘The Mac Needs Shortcuts’ 

Jason Snell, writing at Six Colors:

This is yet another reason why Apple should start the Mac on its transition to the user automation of the future. And the good news is, there is a clear path for Apple to take. The future of user automation on all of Apple’s platforms should be Shortcuts.

There were a lot of people who thought Apple might announce Shortcuts for Mac last year at WWDC. They didn’t, but they did make Shortcuts on iOS a lot better and noticeably faster. So now there are even more people hoping for Shortcuts for Mac this year.

I don’t think the path is that clear though. This piece by Snell is a great overview of Apple’s severely splintered automation story across iOS and MacOS. It just seems chaotic and unplanned.

Activision Reveals Malware Disguised as ‘Call of Duty: Warzone’ Cheats 

As a first order priority, I’m against malware, of course. But if someone has to get hit by malware, cheaters are high on the list.

WWDC 2021: June 7–11, Entirely Online Again 

Apple Newsroom:

Apple today announced it will host its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) June 7 through 11, in an all-online format. Free for all developers, WWDC21 will offer unique insight into the future of iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS, and tvOS. […] Apple also announced that this year’s Swift Student Challenge, an opportunity for young developers to demonstrate their coding skills by creating a Swift playground, is now accepting submissions.

No surprise that WWDC will be entirely online again this year. There’s simply no way the COVID situation will be at “safe for in-person conferences” levels by June. The big question is whether they plan on going back to a live event next year.

The invitation artwork consists of a diverse bunch of Memoji characters, peeking at a MacBook display as the hinge opens. (One of them is wearing a hearing aid.) It’s a clear callback to the Craig Federighi hero shot in the M1 announcement event that launched a thousand memes. But the other thing: every single one of the Memoji characters is wearing glasses, with the contents of the MacBook screen reflected in them. Does this mean Apple’s glasses product is getting announced at WWDC? I’d say that’s possible, but wouldn’t read too much into it. I think it’s more likely that the reflection in the glasses is just part of the art direction for the image. But it’s also not credible to think that Apple didn’t know people will read into this — at the very least it’s a deliberate tease. (Glasses could be the sort of thing Apple pre-announces half a year in advance of shipping, like the iPhone and Apple Watch, because they don’t have to worry about cannibalizing the sales of an existing product they sell. And they might want to get developers working on AR apps for the device. Not saying that’s likely, just saying it’s possible, especially if they want to have AR apps ready on day one.)

“We love bringing our developers together each year at WWDC to learn about our latest technologies and to connect them with Apple engineers,” said Susan Prescott, Apple’s vice president of Worldwide Developer Relations and Enterprise and Education Marketing.

That second-paragraph executive quote previously went to Phil Schiller. Prescott first appeared on stage (I believe) at an event in 2016, when she was running product marketing for the iWork apps, and has been on stage a few times since. Her promotion to VP of worldwide developer relations follows the retirement of Ron Okamoto. Okamoto had been in that position since 2001, and though he never had a high public profile — I don’t recall him ever appearing on stage (or on screen) — he was incredibly influential. The scope of Apple’s “worldwide developer relations” expanded quite a bit, to say the least, from 2001 to 2020.

Ming-Chi Kuo Says Apple’s AR/VR Headset Will Weigh Less Than 150 Grams 

Filipe Espósito, writing for 9to5Mac:

As mentioned by Kuo, current virtual reality headsets typically weigh over 300 grams and have a bulky form factor, which is something Apple wants to solve for its own headset. Apple’s VR device is expected to adopt Fresnel’s hybrid ultra-short focal length lens that have improved field of view, as well as reduced weight and thickness.

The analyst believes that the new Apple-built headset will weigh less than 150 grams, which will be a big advantage when compared to similar devices that currently exist. The device will be equipped with lenses made of plastic instead of glass, which are lighter — but details about the durability of the material are unknown.

Of course an Apple headset would be much lighter than the hardware currently on the market. That’s exactly the sort of thing Apple excels at. No flagship Android phone even approaches the size and weight of the iPhone 12 Mini. And there still aren’t any serious rivals to Apple Watch that are anywhere near as small as the larger 44mm models, let alone the 40mm ones. (It’s debatable whether there are any serious rivals to Apple Watch, period, but that’s another topic.)

Update: Paraphrased question from a few readers: “But what about AirPods Max, they’re heavier than most noise-cancelling headphones?” That is a good counterexample, but it’s not like AirPods Max are the only AirPods, or even the mainstream AirPods. “Max”, in Apple parlance, is an excuse to be heavy: The Pro Max iPhone models are heavy phones.

China Boycotts Western Clothes Brands Over Xinjiang Cotton 

The Economist:

For more than a year some big foreign apparel and technology companies have been walking a fine line on the human-rights abuses committed by China against Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority in the north-western region of Xinjiang. These firms have been working to clear their supply chains of the forced labour of Uyghurs, hundreds of thousands of whom pick cotton under apparently coercive conditions. What they have not done is boast about these efforts, fearful of angering the Communist Party and 1.4bn Chinese consumers. “Usually in our work it’s easier to get companies to say they’re doing the right thing than to actually do it,” says Scott Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a labour-monitoring organisation, and the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region. “On this issue, with limited exceptions, the opposite is true.”

An online furore stoked by Chinese authorities this week suggests that Beijing may be tiring of this double game. China’s government, increasingly keen to punish critics of their Xinjiang policies, is forcing foreign companies to make a choice they have been studiously trying to avoid: support China or get out of the Chinese market.

You play with fire, you eventually get burned. It seems inevitable that more and more companies doing business in China are going to run into conflict between western cultural values and CCP demands that run contrary to them.

CDC: Moderna and Pfizer Vaccines Are Highly Effective in Real-World Conditions 

Gina Kolata, reporting for The New York Times:

The coronavirus vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech are proving highly effective at preventing symptomatic and asymptomatic infections under real-world conditions, federal health researchers reported on Monday.

Consistent with clinical trial data, a two-dose regimen prevented 90 percent of infections by two weeks after the second shot. One dose prevented 80 percent of infections by two weeks after vaccination. […]

Scientists have debated whether vaccinated people may still get asymptomatic infections and transmit the virus to others. The new study, by researchers at the C.D.C., suggested that since infections were so rare, transmission is likely rare, too.

There also has been concern that variants may render the vaccines less effective. The study’s results do not confirm that fear. Troubling variants were circulating during the time of the study — from December 14, 2020 to March 13, 2021 — yet the vaccines still provided powerful protection.

This is just amazingly good news all around. The vaccines don’t just prevent the vaccinated from getting sick, but they almost certainly stop asymptomatic spread, too. And the 4,000 people chosen for the CDC study were at high risk, because they’re front-line health care workers and first responders. For those of us at lower risk, the results should be even better.

See also: County-level map of vaccination rates across the U.S.

Simris 

My thanks to Simris for sponsoring DF this week to promote their algae-based omega-3 supplements. One third of the matter in your brain is literally made of omega-3, and many people eat fish and take fish oil as an omega-3 supplement. But the source of omega-3 is algae — not fish. Fish get their omegas from eating algae. Simris Algae Omega-3 is a completely plant-based and superior alternative to fish oil and krill, without the mercury, PCB, and dioxins, and without harming our oceans.

Simris is a Swedish pioneer company growing microalgae. They save and protect endangered marine habitats by replacing unsustainable marine ingredients, and proudly combine Scandinavian innovation and design at its finest.

Everything about Simris’s products is just really nice: from their website to their packaging to the actual capsules. Just take a look at how nice their ad looks here on the DF sidebar. Great design through and through.

The Racial Breakdown of U.S. Mass Shooters 

Molly Osberg, writing for Jezebel:

Today Hemal Jhaveri, a USA Today employee with almost eight years at the paper, published a blog on Medium saying she’d recently been fired from her position as the “race and inclusion” editor of For the Win, the publication’s sports vertical, over an offending tweet. In other words: Facing manufactured pressure from a bad-faith right-wing ecosystem hellbent on false equivalencies, USA Today took the bait.

On Monday night, in the immediate aftermath of news of the Boulder, Colorado shooting at a grocery store, Jhaveri wrote in a reply to another reporter that “It’s always an angry white man. always.” The comment was perhaps unwise given the notoriously mercurial nature of breaking news in the early hours of a mass shooting event. But given the overwhelmingly white and male profile of mass shooters it is, in the moment, a sensible assumption.

I followed that second link with interest, because I’d been following the controversy regarding Jhaveri’s firing, and idly wondering about the racial breakdown of U.S. mass shooters. Was it a wrong assumption? It’s a Statista report published just this week:

Between 1982 and March 2021, 66 out of the 121 mass shootings in the United States were carried out by white shooters. By comparison, the perpetrator was African American in 21 mass shootings, and Latino in 10. When calculated as percentages, this amounts to 54 percent, 17 percent and 8 percent respectively.

Race of Mass Shooters Reflects the U.S. Population

Broadly speaking, the racial distribution of mass shootings mirrors the racial distribution of the U.S. population as a whole. While a superficial comparison of the statistics seems to suggest African American shooters are over-represented and Latino shooters underrepresented, the fact that the shooter’s race is unclear in around five percent of cases, along with the different time frames over which these statistics are calculated means no such conclusions should be drawn. Conversely, looking at the mass shootings in the United States by gender clearly demonstrates that the majority of mass shootings are carried out by men.

Another day, another head-scratcher. I don’t understand how Osberg could link to this report to support the idea that “it’s always a white man” was a “sensible assumption”, when the report concludes, right at the top in a subhead, that the “race of mass shooters reflects the U.S. population”. It’s not buried in a footnote, or something the reader must parse from a table of data — it’s the lede of the report.

By gender, the tally was striking but unsurprising: 116 male, 3 female, 1 “male and female” (a Mickey and Mallory situation, I presume), and 1 “unknown/not released”. So there is a broad generalization one can rush to when our next mass shooting occurs: the perpetrator will almost certainly be a man. But the United States’s shameful decades-long epidemic of mass shootings has been perpetrated by disturbed men who span the racial divide.

(To be clear, other than for something truly egregious, I don’t think anyone should be fired for a bad tweet. I’m a fan of mercy and tolerance, and believe more apologies should be accepted. But one gets the feeling that Jhaveri’s rift with USA Today was longstanding, that her idea of “race and inclusion” is wholly different and incompatible with the publication’s, and that this was just the breaking point.)

Update: A bunch of readers point out that the one “male and female” shooting is probably the 2015 incident in San Bernardino, which became a controversy for Apple when the FBI asked them to create a version of iOS to install on a phone from one of the shooters that would give the FBI access to the contents of the device.

Gurman: Apple Considering Rugged Apple Watch Model for Sports 

Mark Gurman, with another scoop:

Apple Inc. is considering launching an Apple Watch with a rugged casing aimed at athletes, hikers and others who use the device in more extreme environments, according to people familiar with the matter. The Cupertino, California-based technology giant has internally discussed introducing such a Watch variation later in 2021 or 2022 at the earliest, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private matters. […]

If Apple goes ahead this time, the rugged version would be an additional model similar to how Apple offers a lower-cost option called the Apple Watch SE and special editions co-branded with Nike Inc. and Hermes International. Sometimes dubbed the “Explorer Edition” inside Apple, the product would have the same functionality as a standard Apple Watch but with extra impact-resistance and protection in the vein of Casio’s G-Shock watches.

Apple should definitely do this. It’s kind of surprising they haven’t done it already. This isn’t about something like sapphire vs. ionized glass for the displays. Sapphire (used in the stainless steel and Edition models) is far more scratch resistant than the glass displays used on the aluminum models, but it’s not really more impact resistant.

G-Shocks are incredibly popular watches, and they are meant to take a genuine beating. Remember the original commercial from 1983? That’s the sort of thing this “Explorer” model would be, and I guarantee it would sell like hotcakes. You’ll see them everywhere if Apple ships this. Many people will buy them with no intention to do anything particularly active while wearing them — they’ll just buy the one that looks (and is) rugged because if they’re going to spend hundreds of dollars on a watch they want to be protected. Think about the people you know who don’t just put their phones in cases, but put them in really thick protective cases. This would be the Apple Watch for them.

I would suggest bringing back the “Sport” name — that’s what Apple called the base-model watches in the first generation. In Apple’s original 2015 naming scheme, they called the aluminum base models “Apple Watch Sport”, the more expensive stainless steel models were just plain “Apple Watch”, and the solid gold ones were “Apple Watch High as a Kite”. There was nothing more sporty about those original Sports models though,* yet the branding led some people to wrongly believe that “ionized glass” was stronger or more suited to activity than sapphire. Bring back the “Apple Watch Sport” brand, I say, and this time make it sporty as hell.

* The aluminum models are noticeably lighter weight than the steel models, which arguably makes them better suited to athletic activity.

Jack Rusher Explains NFT’s in a Way That Actually Makes Sense 

Jack Rusher, “What Does It Mean to Buy a GIF”:

Photographic prints can be reproduced in unlimited quantities, but artists’ signatures cannot. This led to a situation where the market for art split in two, one fork for collectors and one for those only interested in the work as an experience. I would argue that this is good for everyone. Artists gained a way to sell work that would otherwise be reduced to a commodity, collectors gained access to a new and culturally vital art form, and great works of art became available to everyone at very close to the marginal cost of reproduction. […]

When viewed in this light, the nature of NFTs becomes quite clear. An NFT is a mechanism by which an artist can publicly attach their cryptographic signature to a digital work of art. In other words, it is a technology that supports in the context of digital arts the same kinds of signed editions that have existed in fine art photography for most of a century.

To say this explanation made a lightbulb turn on in my head is an understatement. NFTs are the digital equivalent of a signed copy of a photograph. You can copy the art losslessly, but you can’t copy the signature, and that signature has value to some collectors.

I’m still unconvinced that the NFTs — especially as currently implemented — aren’t a scam, and I remain firmly convinced that this initial bubble is a Ponzi scheme of sorts, but I at least have a feel for the basic idea why anyone might spend some money on one.

Head-Scratcher of the Day: The NYT Makes Hay Out of the NCAA’s Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament Budgets 

Alan Blinder, reporting for The New York Times, under the outrage-seeking headline “NCAA Acknowledges $13.5 Million Budget Gap Between Men’s and Women’s Tournaments”:

The N.C.A.A. budgeted nearly double for its men’s basketball tournament in 2019 than what it planned for its women’s competition, a $13.5 million gap that will assuredly drive questions about the organization’s commitment to gender equity.

The tournaments vary substantially in their formats and popularity, and N.C.A.A. executives insist that those differences necessarily account for their budgeting decisions. But a financial summary prepared by the association and reviewed by The New York Times, which included figures that a range of college sports executives said they had never seen, showed that the N.C.A.A. devoted far more resources to the men’s tournament, which organizers said had a net income of about $865 million in 2019. The women’s tournament, officials said, lost $2.8 million, more than any other N.C.A.A. championship competition.

This is why so many people are concerned about the direction of The New York Times. The fact that the men’s tournament earned $865 million and the women’s tournament lost nearly $3 million but their budgets are only $13.5 million apart is a sign that the NCAA is committed to gender equality.

In an interview on Friday, Kathleen McNeely, the N.C.A.A.’s chief financial officer, said that organizers “really do strive to have parity” between the men’s and women’s tournaments, particularly around the student-athlete experience. But she said that public interest in the men’s competition had fueled more ticket sales and required more spending.

“The men’s tournament is just a larger tournament: 690,000 fans compared to 275,000 in 2019,” she said. “That kind of a difference is going to bring in a lot of little costs that are going to drive the difference.”

Twice the budget for twice the fans — it’s commensurate. The women’s tournament TV rights are part of a package ESPN signed for the rights to 24 different Division I championships, including women’s basketball, and are worth $36 million per year. The Times claims the NCAA values the women’s basketball tournament as being worth 16 percent of that package: about $6 million per year. The TV rights for the men’s tournament were just extended for $1.1 billion per year. That’s a factor of 183×, yet the tournament budgets differ by only 2×.

That means the Division I women’s basketball tournament generates about one-half of one percent of the money that the men’s tournament does, but gets half the budget to run its tournament. That’s a great deal for the women’s tournament — and every other sport, both men’s and women’s, in the NCAA. This Times story is clearly presented as exposing a scandal of some degree, an inequity, when the complete opposite is true: the NCAA uses the immense profits of its single spectacularly profitable tournament to fund all its other tournaments, of which 84 out of 89 lose money, according to the NCAA.

(College football is even more profitable than men’s basketball, but its weird “championship” postseason is not run by the NCAA.)

Siracusa on Mac OS X at 20 

John Siracusa:

Today is the 20th anniversary of the release of Mac OS X 10.0. If you’d like to look back at my writing on the subject, here’s a collection of links. In particular, I did five- and ten-year retrospectives that might be interesting to look at from our 20-year viewpoint.

Holds up.

Tony Fadell, Too 

Tony Fadell on Twitter:

Coincidentally, 20 years ago today, Stan Ng (Marketing), Jeff Robbin (iTunes) and I pitched Steve Jobs the P68 Dulcimer project.

8 months later that project became the iPod.

I suspect the pitching for P68 took place on March 23 (a Friday), but (a) maybe those folks really were working six days a week, and (b) there’s no question Apple was truly firing on all cylinders in 2001.

Ng and Robbin are still at Apple. Ng has led Apple Watch product marketing since it debuted, and Robbin is still in charge of Apple’s Music apps (and I think apps like TV and Podcasts too — anything derived from SoundJam iTunes).

Scott Forstall on Mac OS X’s 20th Anniversary 

Scott Forstall:

Happy 20th Birthday Mac OS X! I still remember when we named you. In a small room in IL1. When Steve slashed a large X on the wall and smiled. Look at how far you’ve come from a young Cheetah.

Rare tweet from Forstall; would love to hear from him more often.

‘NFT’s Are a Dangerous Trap’ 

Seth Godin:

Like most traps, they’re mysterious and then appealing and then it’s too late.

20 Macs for 2020 Bonus Episodes 

Speaking of yours truly and Jason Snell reminiscing, all three of the standalone episodes with me are now in the 20 Macs for 2020 podcast feed. Also all three of Jason’s episodes with John Siracusa.

(It occurred to me this month, when it was discontinued, that that iMac Pro is a big-time throwback to the classic days of Mac hardware. A lot of the older Macs worth remembering were one-offs. There was only one G4 Cube, only one SE/30. They weren’t product lines, they were unique models, which would sometimes remain on sale for years. The iMac Pro was like that.)

The Talk Show: ‘Russian Nesting Doll Code’ 

Special guest Jason Snell joins the show to reminisce over 20 years of Mac OS X. I mean OS X. Sorry, MacOS. Also: HomePod, AppleTV, and Intel’s awkward new ad campaign.

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The Case Against Year-Round Daylight Saving Time: We Tried It Before 

Aaron Blake, reporting for The Washington Post last week:

The year was 1973, and the United States was experiencing an energy crisis. Among the proposals put forward by President Richard M. Nixon in a November address was making daylight saving time permanent for the next two winters. Despite scant evidence of daylight saving time’s past benefit on the energy supply (dating back to DST’s various introductions since World War I), Americans really liked the idea. Polling in November and December 1973 showed strong and in some cases overwhelming support — 57 percent in a Gallup poll, 74 percent in a Louis Harris and Associates poll, and 73 percent in a poll from the Roper Organization.

The policy was quickly implemented in early January 1974. But it just as quickly fell out of favor.

In a Roper poll conducted in February and March, just 30 percent remained in favor of year-round daylight saving time, while a majority favored switching times again. Louis Harris polling in March showed just 19 percent of people said it had been a good idea, while about twice as many — 43 percent — said it was a bad one.

What happened to change people’s minds? Dark mornings were unpopular. I’m still in favor of trying year-round DST, but it only seems fair to link to the other side of the argument, and it’s pretty interesting that public opinion changed so dramatically when we tried it a generation ago.

See also: Josh Barro, writing at Business Insider: “Daylight-Saving Time Is Good, So Stop Complaining”.

Facebook’s Playbook for Responding to Polarization Accusations 

Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman, reporting for BuzzFeed News on an internal Facebook presentation that came just after the aforelinked Karen Hao blockbuster story on Facebook’s AI:

When shown the internal document by BuzzFeed News, one former Facebook employee who studied polarization at the company said, “This memo is corporate gaslighting disguised as a research brief.” They left the company last year and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

See also: This thread from Gideon Lichfield, who was one of Karen Hao’s editors for the MIT Technology Review story, on Facebook PR’s response.

Facebook’s Misinformation Addiction 

One more on Facebook, this one a staggeringly well-reported piece by Karen Hao for MIT Technology Review, profiling Joaquin Quiñonero Candela, a director of AI at Facebook:

By the time thousands of rioters stormed the US Capitol in January, organized in part on Facebook and fueled by the lies about a stolen election that had fanned out across the platform, it was clear from my conversations that the Responsible AI team had failed to make headway against misinformation and hate speech because it had never made those problems its main focus. More important, I realized, if it tried to, it would be set up for failure.

The reason is simple. Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth. Quiñonero’s AI expertise supercharged that growth. His team got pigeonholed into targeting AI bias, as I learned in my reporting, because preventing such bias helps the company avoid proposed regulation that might, if passed, hamper that growth. Facebook leadership has also repeatedly weakened or halted many initiatives meant to clean up misinformation on the platform because doing so would undermine that growth.

Later:

Since then, other employees have corroborated these findings. A former Facebook AI researcher who joined in 2018 says he and his team conducted “study after study” confirming the same basic idea: models that maximize engagement increase polarization. They could easily track how strongly users agreed or disagreed on different issues, what content they liked to engage with, and how their stances changed as a result. Regardless of the issue, the models learned to feed users increasingly extreme viewpoints. “Over time they measurably become more polarized,” he says.

It’s about priorities: even if Facebook truly wants to tamp down on misinformation and polarizing content (and I believe they do) it doesn’t matter as long as that desire is a lower priority for the company than increasing engagement (and I’m quite certain it is). Whether Facebook’s priorities are the company’s or Zuckerberg’s is probably indistinguishable. Such is the power of the founder/CEO. Apple/Jobs, Microsoft/Gates, Amazon/Bezos — all in the same boat.

I know that “Facebook is a shitty company doing harm to the world” stories are getting old, but this one is truly worth setting aside to read with your full attention.

Dodgers Fans Buy Sign at Fenway Park Thanking Boston Red Sox for Mookie Betts Trade 

I don’t know how I wound up with so many Red Sox fans as friends, but I have a bunch. Every single one of them thought the Betts trade was the worst the Sox have made since you-know-who. Just baffling — he’s clearly a generational talent.

COVID-19 Vaccine Manufacturing in U.S. Races Ahead 

Peter Loftus, reporting for The Wall Street Journal (News+ link):

After a slow start, Pfizer Inc., its partner BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc. have raised output by gaining experience, scaling up production lines and taking other steps like making certain raw materials on their own. Pfizer figured out how to stretch scarce supplies of special filters needed for the vaccine production process by recycling them. Moderna shortened the time it needed to inspect and package newly manufactured vials of its vaccine. […]

The increased output should be enough to fully vaccinate 76 million people in the U.S. in March, another 75 million in April and then 89 million more in May, according to estimates from Evercore ISI analysts. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two doses.

By midsummer, 75% of Americans 12 years old and above should be vaccinated, according to Morgan Stanley.

Outstanding news all around. This sort of large-scale industrial effort — both to manufacture the vaccines and get them into arms — exemplifies the U.S. at its best. Sign up and get vaccinated as soon as you can.

Facebook ‘Reality’ Labs 

This is all just pretend nonsense. It’s no more real than the interfaces Tony Stark uses in the Iron Man movies.

Me, back in 2011, regarding a concept design video from Microsoft:

This video encapsulates everything wrong with Microsoft. Their coolest products are imaginary futuristic bullshit. Guess what, we’ve all seen Minority Report already. Imagine if they instead spent the effort that went into this movie on making something, you know, real, that you could actually go out and buy and use today.

And in a follow-up:

I’m not arguing that making concept videos directly leads to a lack of traction in the current market. I’m arguing that making concept videos is a sign of a company that has a lack of institutional focus on the present and near-present. Can you imagine a sports team in the midst of a present-day losing season that makes a video imagining a future championship 10 years out?

The designs in these concept videos are free from real-world constraints — technical, logical, fiscal. Dealing with constraints is what real design is all about. Institutional attention on the present day — on getting innovative industry-leading products out the door and creating consumer demand for them — requires relentless company-wide focus.

Gizmodo: ‘Zuck Slowly Shrinks and Transforms Into a Corncob Ahead of Apple’s Looming Privacy Updates’ 

Alyse Stanley, with a truly splendid headline for Gizmodo:

Now though, with Apple’s updates looming close on the horizon, Facebook is apparently adopting a new strategy: corncobbing. Aka, to continue to embarrass oneself rather than admit to being brutally owned.

On Thursday, Zuckerberg reiterated concerns that Apple’s decision could still hurt small businesses and developers, but also expressed hope that Facebook might benefit from the situation, CNBC and CNET report.

“It’s possible that we may even be in a stronger position if Apple’s changes encourage more businesses to conduct more commerce on our platforms by making it harder for them to use their data in order to find the customers that would want to use their products outside of our platforms,” he said.

Facebook Is Building an Instagram for Kids Under 13 

I am reminded of an old Letterman gag from the 1980s. It was during a bit called “Rejected FDA Products”, and one of them was “Gerber’s Cigarettes for Infants”.

Sourcegraph 

My thanks to Sourcegraph for sponsoring last week at DF. Imagine if you could search all your code, across every repo, every language, every code host. That’s exactly what Sourcegraph’s universal code search lets you do. Quickly navigate code with contextual hover tool tips that show definitions, references, and usage examples. Construct complex queries and filter code in ways that IDEs and code hosts can’t. Universal code search is a programmer’s superpower. With it you can find and fix bugs, do better code reviews, identify security risks, onboard to a new codebase, and make large-scale refactors. Once you start using Sourcegraph, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. If you’re a developer, you should check it out today.

Toasting the Intel Pentium 2 Processor 

No trip down memory lane exploring Apple/Intel commercials would be complete without this one from 1997. Beige, baby, beige.

Also: The Intel Snail.

Microsoft’s 2008 ‘I’m a PC’ Ad 

I didn’t care for these spots when they were new:

Pathetic. So sad. This campaign (which feels utterly unconnected to the Seinfeld spots) might as well be titled “Please stop making fun of Windows, Apple.” […]

Directly responding to Apple’s campaign is weak. It’s playing Pepsi to Apple’s Coke, Burger King to Apple’s McDonald’s. It’s an explicit acknowledgement that Microsoft is the second-place brand.

In hindsight, I see how the ads were a tacit acknowledgement that they’d dug themselves a hole to climb out of with Windows Vista. Much stronger ads than Intel’s this week — I really doubt there will be any nostalgia for this Intel campaign a decade from now.

There’s also this gem of a comment: “They tell us it’s the iWay or the highway. We think that’s a sad message.”

All of this just goes to show how incredibly effective Apple’s 2006-2009 “Get a Mac” campaign was. And it was such a strange concept, really. There’s something ineffable about its effectiveness.

(Via Harry McCracken, who also points out that Apple had two commercials in the campaign that talked about Macs running Windows Vista.)

Gurman: New iPad Pros in April 

Mark Gurman:

The company is planning a refresh to its iPad Pro line, adding a better processor and improved cameras, the people said. The new models will look similar to the current iPad Pros and come in the same 11-inch and 12.9-inch screen sizes. The devices will have an updated processor that is on par with the faster M1 chip in the latest MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac mini. Apple designs these processors itself and typically has them made by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.

It’s worth remembering that Apple never shipped A13-based iPad Pros. They went from the A12X in November 2018 to an A12Z speed bump one year ago — and the difference between the A12X and A12Z is just one extra GPU core (from 7 to 8). I suspect the new chip in the new iPad Pros will be called the A14X, not the M-something. But performance-wise they should be very close. The names are just marketing, and “M” means Mac.

Apple is also looking to include a Mini-LED screen with at least the larger model, which would be brighter and have improved contrast ratios.

They’re getting announced in two weeks but Apple is “looking to include Mini-LED”. They’d better make a decision soon.

In testing, the new iPad Pros have used a Thunderbolt connector, the same port on the latest Macs with custom Apple processors. The port doesn’t require new chargers, but it would enable connectivity with additional external monitors, hard drives and other peripherals. It’s also faster at syncing data than the USB-C technology used in the current models.

Sounds like this is USB 4, which incorporates Thunderbolt 3.

Shaan Puri’s Bear Case Against Clubhouse 

Shaan Puri, in a breezy, fun thread on Twitter:

So… everyone seems to think clubhouse is the “next big thing” - but I think it’s going to fail. Here’s how I think it all goes down.

(Disclaimer - I don’t want clubhouse to fail. The world is more fun if it wins… but wanting something doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. If it did, then guac would be default included inside every bag of chips.)

It’s devilishly hard to predict how something popular and growing might eventually peter out. I think Puri is onto something about the limits of Clubhouse’s potential appeal after they run out of early adopters. One factor that’s hard to gauge, but comes up frequently, is the effect of our quarantine on Clubhouse’s appeal. To some degree it seems certain that Clubhouse is at least a little more popular than it would be (or will be) in a world where we’re not all starved for normal social interaction.

But there are some things Clubhouse has going for it that don’t seem to get talked about. One is serendipity. It’s a defining constraint of the platform that everything is live. But that can be a feature, too. Don’t forget that tens of millions of people watch live TV every day. Sometimes, some people just want to turn on the TV and find something, anything, to grab their attention. I think Clubhouse brings something like that to our phones.

Were the Airline Bailouts Really Needed? 

Andrew Ross Sorkin, writing for The New York Times:

It is fair to say that we socialized the airline industry’s losses and largely privatized the gains.

No other industry affected by the pandemic received more from the government. There was no special program for hotels or restaurants or travel agencies. Companies in those industries had to line up for the small business-focused Paycheck Protection Program and pray. The largest loan the program could make was $10 million.

The question isn’t whether airline employees should have been helped, it’s whether airline shareholders should have been. The airline bailouts weren’t simply a job-protection program, as advertised. In case you’re not convinced, there’s this: United invested $20 million into an electric helicopter company last month that went public through a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC. Does that sound like a company that is in such dire straits that it requires a taxpayer-funded bailout? It received a third rescue payment after it made the investment.

With the stock market now soaring, it is worth considering whether the airlines needed taxpayer money at all.

Pairs well — albeit frustratingly — with my previous item. Sorkin points out that a big part of the “privatized profits” is that when business is good, the airlines pump their profits into stock buybacks, rather than saving for a rainy day (or pandemic year). Restaurants don’t have that option — they run on tight margins and generally slim profits even when business is good.

And yes, there are big airline-size corporations that run massive restaurant chains. A bailout that focused on privately-held restaurants would have been one way to start.

With the Government Absent, Who Was Responsible for Saving Restaurants? 

Hillary Dixler Canavan, writing for Eater:

Agency is hard enough to come by in daily life, but in a pandemic that’s made it clear just how little of it we actually have, choosing how to spend money becomes a compelling stand-in. It seems inevitable now that the choices available to even the most ethically minded diners have largely been consumer choices: Buy restaurant merch and gift cards. Get takeout and tip extravagantly. Avoid third-party delivery apps if possible. Dine outside. Eat at home.

But underneath every available option is the one terrible choice the government constructed for all of us: Engage with restaurants or watch the industry disappear. This is the wrong ultimatum, however, and one that only reinforces two distinct yet related axioms of American restaurant culture — that customers ought to have authority over workers, and that those workers matter less than their customers.

We have leaned toward “get takeout and tip extravagantly”, but it’s tough. Even making a conscientious effort to support our favorite restaurants, we’ve spent only a fraction of what we usually spend over the last year. It’s been a hard year for so many businesses, but it’s hard to not think that we, collectively, have most failed our restaurant industry. We even call it “hospitality”. How can you be hospitable during a frighteningly contagious and dangerous pandemic?

Apple’s Own Privacy Nutrition Labels 

Apple:

Our privacy labels are designed to help you understand how apps handle your data, including apps we develop at Apple. This page brings privacy labels for our iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS, and tvOS apps together in one place.

Google Play Store Drops Commissions to 15 Percent for First $1M in Revenue 

Manish Singh, reporting for TechCrunch:

Google will lower its Play commissions globally for developers that sell in-app digital goods and services on its marquee store, the company said, following a similar move by rival Apple late last year.

The Android-maker said on Tuesday that starting July 1, it is reducing the service fee for Google Play to 15% — down from 30% — for the first $1 million of revenue developers earn using Play billing system each year. The company will levy a 30% cut on every dollar developers generate through Google Play beyond the first $1 million in a year, it said.

Citing its own estimates, Google said 99% of developers that sell goods and services with Play will see a 50% reduction in fees, and that 97% of apps globally do not sell digital goods or pay any service fee.

Google’s new rules are simpler than Apple’s Small Business Program. With Apple’s, developers need to apply to the program, and if they go over $1 million in annual revenue, they no longer qualify for the discounted commission on any sales.

Paul Haddad, on Twitter:

I’m happy to see more App Stores going down the 15% route but the “progressive taxation” nature of it just seems weird to me. It’s not like the Store’s cost/unit go up as more units get sold. Just go 15% across the board.

70/30 percent just feels harder and harder for Apple and Google to defend. Make it 85/15 across the board and it all becomes simpler.

The Growing Push to Make Daylight Time Year-Round 

Alan Yuhas, reporting for The New York Times:

The European Union and several U.S. states, including California, Florida and Ohio, are either considering dropping the shift or taking steps to do so.

This month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill to make daylight time permanent year-round. In a statement, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said that “springing forward and falling back year after year only creates unnecessary confusion while harming Americans’ health and our economy.”

I’m strongly in favor of this. I know it sucks to get up for work or school in the dark, but it sucks to have the sun set at 4:30 in the afternoon, too. It also seems to me that we’ve named our times wrong — what we call “standard time” is only used 133 days per year. If we do drop the shift, it’ll be to standardize on daylight saving time.

Google Publishes Privacy Labels for Chrome and Google Search Apps 

DuckDuckGo, having a bit of fun at Google’s expense:

After months of stalling, Google finally revealed how much personal data they collect in Chrome and the Google app. No wonder they wanted to hide it.

Spying on users has nothing to do with building a great web browser or search engine. We would know (our app is both in one).

They’re still rolling these out piecemeal — Google Maps and Google Photos, for example, still haven’t been updated.

Apple Maps Now Displays COVID-19 Vaccination Locations 

Apple Newsroom:

Apple today updated Apple Maps with COVID-19 vaccination locations from VaccineFinder, a free, online service developed by Boston Children’s Hospital that provides the latest vaccine availability for those eligible at providers and pharmacies throughout the US. Users can find nearby COVID-19 vaccination locations from the Search bar in Apple Maps by selecting COVID-19 Vaccines in the Find Nearby menu or by asking Siri, “Where can I get a COVID vaccination?”

Tara AI 

My thanks to Tara for sponsoring last week at DF.

  • It takes 12 clicks to create a sprint on Jira.
  • 22 clicks to connect Jira to Github.
  • 32 clicks to get anything done.

With the DF community’s help, Tara has designed a modern, simple interface that just works for teams that are building and growing rapidly. Tara AI helps engineers and teams deliver on planned releases with simple sprint planning, a unified view of tasks, and a clear overview of daily priorities synced to GitHub.

What’s new:

  • Daily stand-ups with PR status: With a TASK-ID reference, Tara automatically shows pull request status from Git for a given task and any blockers to completing your sprint.

  • Sprint reporting inside Slack: Teams can now create Tara tasks from Slack and receive automated reports on effort, pull requests, and commits completed within a sprint.

DF readers can sign up for free, with no user limits in workspaces.

Apple Discontinues Original HomePod, Will Focus on Mini 

Matthew Panzarino, reporting for TechCrunch:

After 4 years on the market, Apple has discontinued its original HomePod. It says that it will continue to produce and focus on the HomePod mini, introduced last year. The larger HomePod offered a beefier sound space but the mini has been very well received and clearly accomplishes many of the duties that the larger version was tasked with. The sound is super solid (especially for the size) and it offers access to Siri, Apple’s assistant feature.

I love my HomePods, but clearly the market deemed them too expensive. I think part of the problem is that the real HomePod experience is having two of them paired — they sound more than twice as good as a single HomePod. So to get the real HomePod experience, it’s $600 (and used to be $700).

Lou Ottens, Inventor of the Cassette Tape, Dies at 94 

The Associated Press:

A structural engineer who trained at the prestigious Technical University in Delft, he joined Philips in 1952 and was head of the company’s product development department when he began work on an alternative for existing tape recorders with their cumbersome large spools of tape.

His goal was simple: making tapes and their players far more portable and easier to use.

“During the development of the cassette tape, in the early 1960s, he had a wooden block made that fit exactly in his coat pocket,” said Olga Coolen, director of the Philips Museum in the southern city of Eindhoven. “This was how big the first compact cassette was to be, making it a lot handier than the bulky tape recorders in use at the time.”

The final product created in 1962 later turned into a worldwide hit, with more than 100 billion cassettes sold, many to music fans who would record their own compilations direct from the radio. Its popularity waned with the arrival of the compact disc, an invention Ottens also helped create as supervisor of a development team, Philips said.

Cassette tapes were a huge part of my youth. That’s how I listened to music, and, because you could easily record on them, that’s how I collected my own music. You could listen to the radio on your boom box (I had a classic Panasonic that looked a lot like this one) and when a song you liked came out, you could record it. When you caught a hit song with a tape ready to go, it was like winning a little jackpot. Cassette tapes were empowering and fun.

In high school I bought a Sony Walkman that I recall cost a bit north of $100. It was a Sports model, one of the rugged yellow ones, and it offered what to me then sounded like amazing bass, and a digital FM tuner that was a game changer for getting a perfect signal. There’s a direct line from cassette tapes to iPods and the modern world of streaming.

I spent a fortune on CDs when I went to college, but I don’t have the reverent nostalgia for CDs that I do for cassette tapes. (Cassettes were even part of computing — my elementary school had a few TI-99/4A computers with cassette tapes instead of floppy drives.)

YKK Zippers 

Josh Centers, writing for The Prepared:

A “pro tip” for evaluating the quality of a piece of gear is to look at the small details, such as zippers and stitching. Cheap-minded manufacturers will skimp on those details because most people just don’t notice, and even a cheap component will often last past a basic warranty period, so it’s an easy way to increase profits without losing sales or returns.

If a designer does bother to invest in quality components, that’s a tried-and-true sign that the overall product is better than the competition. Zippers are a classic example when looking at backpacks, clothing, and similar gear. And although there are a few other fine zipper brands out there, the king is YKK Group — to the point that the first thing some gear reviewers look for is the “YKK” branding on the zipper pull tab.

My dad used to do some work for YKK back in the ‘90s, so I wanted to dig deeper into why they’re the king and what makes their zippers so associated with quality.

Centers quotes a remark from a post by Recycled Firefighter:

YKK Zippers are amazing, because they self-lubricate the more you use them. You’ll notice that other brands of zippers become sticky and gritty over time. Not with YKK… They will feel more smooth, the more you use them.

I have a hoodie from American Giant that’s a few years old now, and the zipper no longer stays up. It’s not a YKK. I also have a slightly newer hoodie from them — same size — and the zipper always stays up, and, I have noticed, just has a better feel. It’s a YKK.

Amazon Refuses to Allow Libraries to Buy the Books They Publish 

Geoffrey Fowler, writing for The Washington Post:

You probably think of Amazon as the largest online bookstore. Amazon helped make e-books popular with the Kindle, now the dominant e-reader. Less well known is that since 2009, Amazon has published books and audiobooks under its own brands including Lake Union, Thomas & Mercer and Audible. Amazon is a beast with many tentacles: It’s got the store, the reading devices and, increasingly, the words that go on them.

Librarians have been no match for the beast. When authors sign up with a publisher, it decides how to distribute their work. With other big publishers, selling e-books and audiobooks to libraries is part of the mix — that’s why you’re able to digitally check out bestsellers like Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land.” Amazon is the only big publisher that flat-out blocks library digital collections. Search your local library’s website, and you won’t find recent e-books by Amazon authors Kaling, Dean Koontz or Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Nor will you find downloadable audiobooks for Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime,” Andy Weir’s “The Martian” and Michael Pollan’s “Caffeine.”

Looks like it’s time for the Justice Department to investigate Apple Books again.

Robbing Peter to Buy Paul’s NFT 

James Tarmy, reporting for Bloomberg:*

A digital asset investor who goes by the handle Metakovan and refuses to give his full name, announced that he is the buyer of the record-breaking $69.3 million digital artwork that sold Thursday. Christie’s auction house, which hosted the sale, confirmed his statement, also declining to reveal his legal name.

Metakovan is the chief financier behind Metapurse, a crytpo-based fund that acquires NFTs and other virtual properties; it claims to be the largest NFT fund in the world.

So an investor in an NFT venture made sure an NFT auction made news headlines? I’ll gladly admit I don’t understand this entire NFT thing, but this seems like a publicity scam.

* Don’t get me started on this outfit.

Drexel Heads to March Madness for the First Time Since 1996 

Mike Jensen, writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer:

This didn’t quite come from nowhere. Drexel had gotten a bit better each year of the Spiker era, no winning seasons, but inching closer, and picked third in the CAA this season, with two first-team all-conference vets.

Let’s face it, though, when you haven’t been there in 25 years, when your fans can recite the heartbreak and the near misses, when the DAC had gotten sparse even before COVID-19 hit … when you’re seeded sixth going into the CAA Tournament, when it all goes down in this crazy pandemic year…

… Yeah, this NCAA bid dropped from the sky.

Drexel’s last appearance in the NCAA tournament was 1996, my senior year, with a team led by Malik Rose, who went on to a solid NBA career (including a few championship seasons with the Spurs).

Apple Sues Former Employee for Leaking Trade Secrets to Unnamed ‘Media Correspondent’ (PDF) 

Apple v. Simon Lancaster, filed today in United States district court in California:

Plaintiff Apple Inc. (“Apple”) brings this action to stop the misappropriation of Apple’s trade secrets by its former employee Simon Lancaster.

Despite over a decade of employment at Apple, Lancaster abused his position and trust within the company to systematically disseminate Apple’s sensitive trade secret information in an effort to obtain personal benefits. He used his seniority to gain access to internal meetings and documents outside the scope of his job’s responsibilities containing Apple’s trade secrets, and he provided these trade secrets to his outside media correspondent (“Correspondent”). The Correspondent then published the stolen trade secrets in articles, citing a “source” at Apple. On multiple occasions, Lancaster proposed that the Correspondent give benefits to Lancaster in exchange for Apple’s trade secrets. For example, Lancaster proposed that the Correspondent provide favorable coverage of a startup company in which Lancaster was an investor as a quid pro quo. Lancaster even recruited the Correspondent to serve as his personal investigator. In one instance, Lancaster requested that the Correspondent explore a rumor that could prove harmful to a company in which Lancaster had invested. […]

On October 10, 2019, the Correspondent requested additional confidential information from Lancaster related to another unannounced Apple project referred to herein as “Project X.”

On October 15, 2019, Lancaster submitted his resignation to Apple, and he began off-boarding from his roles within the company. […] On October 16, 2019, the Correspondent asked Lancaster “can you grab me those docs before you leave”? Lancaster responded “which ones,” and the Correspondent then identified specific Apple confidential documents that they wanted Lancaster to misappropriate.

Later that month, Lancaster informed the Correspondent that he intended to attend a meeting regarding Project X. […] Prior to the time Lancaster attended the Project X meeting, he was instructed by Apple that he should not attend the meeting, especially given his announced departure. Additional Apple personnel told Lancaster during the meeting that he should not be present. Lancaster eventually left the meeting, but he learned substantial SAI regarding Project X before leaving. Lancaster wrote to one of his managers who had instructed him that he should not be in the meeting that “I had already been exposed to all the hardware they showed while I was in the [meeting]. Was just hoping to see a demo.” On information and belief, this communication by Lancaster was intended to disguise his efforts to misappropriate Apple trade secrets regarding Project X.

On information and belief, Lancaster transmitted the trade secret SAI gleaned from this meeting to the Correspondent on the same day the meeting occurred. […]

November 1, 2019 was Lancaster’s final day of employment at Apple and his credentials to log into the secure Apple corporate network were set to expire at midnight. But at 10:24 p.m. that same day, Lancaster used his credentials to log onto Apple’s secure corporate network from a location outside Apple facilities. On information and belief, Lancaster used this access to download additional SAI before his login credentials expired. In particular, Lancaster downloaded confidential information that would assist his new employer.

Mere days after Lancaster’s final day at Apple, Lancaster had a call with the Correspondent and later congratulated the Correspondent about the success of an article that disclosed SAI that Lancaster had misappropriated in his final weeks of employment at Apple.

Project X could be anything, but it sure sounds like Apple’s VR/AR glasses project. There just aren’t that many secret Apple projects that have been written about, and Project X does not sound like Project Titan (the car). There aren’t that many candidates for the “correspondent”, either. The Information ran a piece bylined by Wayne Ma, Alex Heath, and Nick Wingfield on 11 November 2019, “Apple Eyes 2022 Release for AR Headset, 2023 for Glasses”. Then there’s Bloomberg, which ran a piece solo bylined by Mark Gurman on 21 October 2019, “Apple’s Smart Glasses Could Make 2020 the Year of AR”:

Such applications are central to Apple’s long-awaited AR glasses, which are expected to have holographic displays in their lenses. Apple has targeted 2020 for the release of its AR headset, an attempt to succeed where Google Glass failed years ago. The glasses are expected to synchronize with a wearer’s iPhone to display things such as texts, emails, maps, and games over the user’s field of vision. The company has considered including an App Store with the headset, as it does on Apple TV streaming devices and the Apple Watch. It’s hiring experts in graphics and game development to establish the glasses as the leader in a new product category and, if all goes perfectly, an eventual successor to the iPhone.

Tesla Admits to California DMV That Their ‘Full Self Driving’ Mode Is Not Capable of Autonomous Driving 

Roberto Baldwin, writing for Car and Driver:

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been promising FSD (Full Self Driving) software for years. For owners, opting for the chance to have their Tesla drive them to work and back mostly on its own has set them back to the tune of up to $10,000. But according to a letter that Tesla sent to the California DMV about FSD’s capability, acquired by PlainSite via a public records request, the dream of a self-driving car from the automaker this year might be just that, a dream.

The key correspondence comes from December 28, 2020, between Tesla’s associate general counsel Eric C. Williams and California DMV’s chief of the autonomous vehicles branch, Miguel D. Acosta. A letter details the capabilities of both Autopilot and FSD: “Currently neither Autopilot nor FSD Capability is an autonomous system, and currently no comprising feature, whether singularly or collectively, is autonomous or makes our vehicles autonomous,” Williams states.

The Tesla true believers are as convinced that level 5 autonomy is just around the corner as the QAnon kooks are about The Storm.

‘Follow’ Is the new ‘Subscribe’ for Apple Podcasts 

James Cridland, writing for Podnews:

Apple Podcasts will no longer use the word “subscribe” in a few weeks. Listeners will be invited to “follow” their favourite podcasts instead. The new wording will be in iOS 14.5, which should be released later this month (and is available in beta). We expect Apple to communicate further with creators, and listeners, when this version of iOS is released.

This seemingly small change could dramatically affect the industry. Tom Webster from Edison Research says 47% of people who don’t currently listen to podcasts think that ‘subscribing’ to a podcast will cost money, describing it as a stone in the shoe of podcasting’s growth run. He tells Podnews: “Today, Apple, Spotify, and YouTube are the three most widely used services to play podcasts, and now the word Subscribe means ‘automatically download for free’ in exactly none of them. Podcasters will have no choice but to adapt their language accordingly or risk confusing listeners.”

Other larger podcast apps have already changed: Spotify and Audible use “follow”, Stitcher uses “+ follow”, and Amazon Music uses “♡ follow”. Meanwhile, Google Podcasts and Castbox use “+ Subscribe”, and Overcast and Castro uses “Subscribe”.

I think I like this change. It clarifies what’s free and what’s paid using common words. It removes confusion from a service that wants to both sell access to paid podcasts and allow users to sign up for regular old-fashioned free podcasts. And it removes confusion for users who hear the word subscribe and think it implies paid.

So: follow The Talk Show and subscribe to Dithering — thanks.

From the DF Archive: ‘iPhone Enterprise and SDK: First Impressions and Questions’ 

From my 6 March 2008 first-impressions post regarding Apple’s iPhone SDK and App Store announcement:

Apple’s 30/70 split with developers is steep, but initial reaction from the developers I follow on Twitter seems to be positive. Paul Kafasis of Rogue Amoeba told me via IM, “70%? That’s… that’s… livable,” which seems to sum up the consensus sentiment. […]

In short, what developers lose per-transaction from Apple’s 30 percent take, they can more than make up for in volume. This is going to be a gold rush.

I was correct that native apps on iPhone were going to be a huge thing, but I did not foresee how “free” apps would cripple/stunt/distort the market for selling them. The market for selling iOS apps never resembled the market for selling Mac apps pre-iPhone.

Calling it a “gold rush” was, arguably, more right than I knew. At the time I wrote that, I meant it in the common sense of a new market where many would have the opportunity to make a fortune. But in a real-life gold rush, do that many people make a fortune? It certainly wasn’t the boon to indie Mac developers that I predicted.

(Rogue Amoeba, for example, has a free iOS companion app for Airfoil, and in 2008 released Radioshift Touch for iPhone for the sky-high price of $10, but as a business, they are every bit as much a Mac developer today as they were in 2008.)

Scott Forstall Encouraged Pandora to Begin Developing for iPhone Via Jailbreaking in 2007 

Tyler Hayes, in an interesting story for Motherboard about Pandora:

After Steve Jobs announced the iPhone in 2007 it became apparent that this new internet connected, “music player,” device in people’s pockets needed to be the future of its mobile efforts.

After pushback on only allowing web apps for the iPhone, Steve Jobs announced that native apps would be coming to the iPhone. In the interim, Apple Senior Vice President Scott Forstall invited Tim Westergren and his CTO, Tom Conrad, over to a local Cupertino lunch spot. The trio talked for hours about what Pandora had learned about streaming audio from putting apps on flip phones, like Motorola’s RAZR, for wireless carriers. The meeting ended with a question for Forstall.

“What, if anything, can we do at Pandora to get ready for the next generation of iPhone that includes an app store and native APIs?” asked Conrad. “Forstall said, it wouldn’t be a waste of your time to jailbreak some iPhones and use the kind of back door toolkits that were being distributed by other people to build a native Pandora app while we get our act together at Apple on something more formal.”

So, Conrad, designer Dan Lythcott-Haines, and many others on the team got to work jailbreaking iPhones and working on a Pandora iPhone app ahead of the official APK release. Then, on day one of the App Store launch, Pandora was the first internet radio app available. Nine months later the Pandora app was installed on 21 percent of iPhones.

Steve Jobs announced Apple’s plans for a third-party SDK on 17 October 2007 (“no permalink that I can find, alas”), and the SDK and App Store were unveiled by Jobs at a Town Hall event on 6 March 2008. That probably pegs this Forstall-Pandora meeting at the end of 2007, perhaps just after the SDK announcement in October. (Update 1: Here’s a link to Jobs’s “Hot News” announcement post at Internet Archive: “We think a few months of patience now will be rewarded by many years of great third party applications running on safe and reliable iPhones.”)

A few of the apps available on day one of the App Store began life in the jailbreak-or-bust era of 2007, including Twitterrific and Lights Out — a polished game by Lucas Newman that he was already demoing in early August 2007. Pandora and Twitterrific are still going, of course, and Steven Troughton-Smith’s Lights Off is a made-with-permission recreation of Lights Out that’s been in the App Store since 2008.

Update 2: Craig Hockenberry posted Newman’s original Lights Off source code three years ago, in this 10-year remembrance.

N.Y.U. Study: Far-Right Misinformation Is Facebook’s Most Engaging Political Content 

Laura Edelson, Minh-Kha Nguyen, Ian Goldstein, Oana Goga, Tobias Lauinger, and Damon McCoy, in a bracing report for the Center for Cybersecurity at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering:

Facebook has become a major way people find news and information in an increasingly politically polarized nation. We analyzed how users interacted with different types of posts promoted as news in the lead-up to and aftermath of the U.S. 2020 elections. We found that politically extreme sources tend to generate more interactions from users. In particular, content from sources rated as far-right by independent news rating services consistently received the highest engagement per follower of any partisan group. Additionally, frequent purveyors of far-right misinformation had on average 65% more engagement per follower than other far-right pages. We found:

  • Sources of news and information rated as far-right generate the highest average number of interactions per follower with their posts, followed by sources from the far-left, and then news sources closer to the center of the political spectrum.
  • Looking at the far-right, misinformation sources far outperform non-misinformation sources. Far-right sources designated as spreaders of misinformation had an average of 426 interactions per thousand followers per week, while non-misinformation sources had an average of 259 weekly interactions per thousand followers. […]
  • Center and left partisan categories incur a misinformation penalty, while right-leaning sources do not. Center sources of misinformation, for example, performed about 70% worse than their non-misinformation counterparts. (Note: center sources of misinformation tend to be sites presenting as health news that have no obvious ideological orientation.)

That’s the basic story in a nut: It’s not the same “on both sides”. The far right has a weakness for misinformation that the rest of the political spectrum does not. From the far left to the slightly right, the NYU study shows a preference for accurate news over misinformation; it’s only the far right that prefers misinformation, and they prefer it strongly.

It’s not that Facebook’s leadership is pro-right-wing misinformation, but that they value engagement over all else. And if right-wing misinformation is catnip for a large audience, so be it. If it’s engaging, they push it.

(Via Protocol.)

F.B.I. Informant Reveals How He Got Involved With Gretchen Whitmer Kidnapping Plotters: Facebook 

Joe Guillen and Omar Abdel-Baqui, reporting for The Detroit Free Press:

A confidential FBI informant testified Friday in a Jackson court about being embedded for months alongside leaders of a group accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The informant’s identity was concealed for his safety. Introduced only as “Dan,” an online video feed of Friday’s hearing was cut off during his testimony so court observers only could hear him. Dan described learning of the group — known as the Wolverine Watchmen — through a Facebook algorithm that he believed made the suggestion based on his interactions with other Facebook pages that support the Second Amendment and firearms training.

“I was scrolling through Facebook one day and they popped up as a suggestion post,” Dan said. “I clicked on the page and it had a few questions to answer.”

Fucking Facebook.

T-Mobile Is Automatically Enrolling Cell Phone Customers Into Ad Tracking Based on Their Online Activity 

Drew FitzGerald, reporting for The Wall Street Journal (News+ link):

T-Mobile US Inc. will automatically enroll its phone subscribers in an advertising program informed by their online activity, testing businesses’ appetite for information that other companies have restricted.

The No. 2 U.S. carrier by subscribers said in a recent privacy-policy update that unless they opt out it will share customers’ web and mobile-app data with advertisers starting April 26. For example, the program could help advertisers identify people who enjoy cooking or are sports enthusiasts, the company said. […]

A T-Mobile spokeswoman said the changes give subscribers advertising that aligns with their interests. “We’ve heard many say they prefer more relevant ads so we’re defaulting to this setting,” she said. […] The company said the changes wouldn’t apply to business accounts or children’s lines.

If it’s such a great idea that customers just love, why not turn it on for everyone, including business accounts and children’s lines?

Just more proof that no matter what Apple or Google or Microsoft do to help make our devices more private at the operating system level, we’re at the mercy of the companies providing us with internet access, whether through home landline service or cellular. AT&T and Verizon both have similar targeted ad tracking programs, and The Journal has instructions at the bottom of their report for how to opt out of them. But I continue to think the answer, for iCloud users, is a trusted VPN-like anonymizing service from Apple.

‘Right Up Our Alley’ 

Beautiful and fascinating drone footage of a classic bowling alley — worth watching until the end. A shot like this would have been impossible, at any budget, not too long ago.

Origin of the Mac OS X Dock Poof Animation 

Chris Hynes:

On the piece of paper, he drew a series of frames similar to what is pictured above. A quick, five frame animation. The intention of the designer was that these drawings would stoke further discussion. That it would get cleaned up and refined later.

But that never happened. It shipped as is. And the rest is history.

Update: My pal CHOCK made these animations. When you look at the poof slowly, it really does look crude:

Slow motion animation of the 5-frame Mac OS X poof animation.

Speed it up, though, and your brain does the work of making it look good:

Same 5 frames, animated without delay.

Encode Mighty Things 

Fun web toy by Noah Liebman: encode your own message on a parachute like the one used for NASA’s Mars rover.

CDC: Fully Vaccinated People Can Gather Indoors Without Masks 

Marisa Fernandez, reporting for Axios:

People who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can take fewer precautions in certain situations, including socializing indoors without masks when in the company of low-risk or other vaccinated individuals, according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Monday.

Why it matters: The report cites early evidence that suggests vaccinated people are less likely to have asymptomatic infection, and are potentially less likely to transmit the virus to other people. At the time of its publication, the CDC said the guidance would apply to about 10% of Americans.

Atoms 

My thanks to Atoms for sponsoring last week at DF. Atoms is best known for their everyday shoes. Last year, they expanded into face masks. The shoes are cool-looking and very comfortable; the masks are long-lasting and breathable, with a polyester blend outer layer and a copper-lined ionized quartz yarn inner layer offering 85 percent filtration.

At the moment, though, they’re largely sold out.

They’re sold out because Atoms co-founder Sidra Qasim told an 11-part story for the Instagram account Humans of New York that went hyper-viral, and thousands of people who loved her story wound up at the Atoms website buying shoes. It’s a wonderful story — deeply personal, about growing up in Pakistan, building her own life and destiny, and creating a business. A tidbit, from the early days, while she and co-founder (and eventually husband) Waqas Ali were still in Pakistan:

We called our collection “Hometown Shoes.” And after we launched our website, the first order came in right away. It was from a person in France who’d been following our story on social media.

Because we had no way of accepting credit cards, he sent us $85 through Western Union. It was a very big moment for us. We had finally discovered a business that would work. But our excitement only lasted until we got to FedEx, and learned that shipping would cost $120. We were torn about what to do. We considered giving the man a refund, but we had been reading so much about customer service. So we ended up shipping the shoes. It was not a promising start. We’d lost a lot of money on our very first sale.

Anyone who’s ever launched any new product can sympathize.

I (and Atoms) encourage you to read her story. It’s so good. And you can pre-order shoes and masks while they get them back in stock — orders placed now should ship by the end of April.

The Open Letter: ‘Call for a Full and Unrestricted International Forensic Investigation Into the Origins of COVID-19’ 

It’s very much worth reading the open letter signed by 26 scientists. (I’m linking here to the version hosted by The Wall Street Journal, but the type looks weirdly squished. The copy hosted by The New York Times looks better, but in their copy, none of the links are actually links — they’re just blue underlined text. Better to link to the typographically-flawed version that has the actual links. I’m hosting a copy for posterity as well.) From the letter:

Although the “collaborative” process of discovery mandated by the World Health Assembly in May 2020 was meant to enable a full examination of the origins of the pandemic, we believe that structural limitations built into this endeavor make it all but impossible for the WHO-convened mission to realize this aspiration.

Based on our analysis, and as confirmed by the global study convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Chinese authorities, there is as yet no evidence demonstrating a fully natural origin of this virus. The zoonosis hypothesis, largely based on patterns of previous zoonosis events, is only one of a number of possible SARS-CoV-2 origins, alongside the research-related accident hypothesis.

In particular, we wish to raise public awareness of the fact that half of the joint team convened under that process is made of Chinese citizens whose scientific independence may be limited, that international members of the joint team had to rely on information the Chinese authorities chose to share with them, and that any joint team report must be approved by both the Chinese and international members of the joint team.

We have therefore reached the conclusion that the joint team did not have the mandate, the independence, or the necessary accesses to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation into all the relevant SARS-CoV-2 origin hypotheses - whether natural spillover or laboratory/research- related incident.

We are also concerned that the joint team’s work has been inaccurately reported by the media as an independent investigation whose conclusions reflect those of the WHO. The February 9, 2021 Wuhan joint press conference was a good example of this misunderstanding. Although the findings were those of the joint team, they were widely reported as representing the WHO itself.

The letter goes on to describe what a truly full investigation would look like.

W.H.O. Investigators to Scrap Plans for Interim Report on Probe of COVID-19 Origins 

Betsy McKay, Drew Hinshaw, and Jeremy Page, reporting for The Wall Street Journal (News+ link):

A World Health Organization team investigating the origins of Covid-19 is planning to scrap an interim report on its recent mission to China amid mounting tensions between Beijing and Washington over the investigation and an appeal from one international group of scientists for a new probe.

The group of two dozen scientists is calling in an open letter on Thursday for a new international inquiry. They say the WHO team that last month completed a mission to Wuhan — the Chinese city where the first known cases were found — had insufficient access to adequately investigate possible sources of the new coronavirus, including whether it slipped from a laboratory. […]

Beijing, meanwhile, is pressing for similar WHO-led missions to other countries, including the U.S., to investigate whether the virus could have originated outside China and spread to Wuhan via frozen food packaging.

Beijing calling for WHO-led missions to other countries in search of COVID’s origin is like O.J. Simpson’s vow to search for the “real killers” of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Two Dozen Scientists Question W.H.O. Inquiry Into the Coronavirus Pandemic’s Origins, Press for Investigation Into Possible Lab Leak 

James Gorman, reporting for The New York Times:

A small group of scientists and others who believe the novel coronavirus that spawned the pandemic could have originated from a lab leak or accident is calling for an inquiry independent of the World Health Organization’s team of independent experts sent to China last month. […]

The open letter, first reported in The Wall Street Journal and the French publication Le Monde, lists what the signers see as flaws in the joint W.H.O.-China inquiry, and state that it could not adequately address the possibility that the virus leaked from a lab. The letter further posits the type of investigation that would be adequate, including full access to records within China. […]

Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University and one of the scientists who signed the letter, said it grew out of a series of online discussions among scientists, policy experts and others who came to be known informally as the Paris group. […] He said that no one in the group thought that the virus had been intentionally created as a weapon, but they were all convinced that an origin in a lab through research or by accidental infection was as likely as a spillover occurring in nature from animals to humans.

I caught more flak after linking favorably to Nicholson Baker’s “The Lab Leak Hypothesis” cover story for New York magazine two months ago than anything I’ve posted in recent memory. But the lab-leak theory is looking more likely as time goes on, not less. And without question it ought to be investigated thoroughly — which is what the open letter is calling for.

A lot of the “facts” people think they know about the coronavirus’s origins just aren’t true. The whole thing about the virus jumping to humans from meat sold at a Wuhan “wet market”? Not true. The market was just the location of a super-spreader event. Pangolins — the scaly anteaters that were much publicized last year as the possible source? Now deemed unlikely.

It’s true there is no available evidence that COVID-19 leaked from a Wuhan lab, but there’s also no evidence that it originated zoonotically. With the original SARS coronavirus, investigators found animals suspected of spreading it to humans. It is curious, to say the least, that no animal source for COVID-19 has been found. It is also suspicious, to say the least, that the Chinese government is stymying any and all attempts to investigate the Wuhan virology labs.

Square Is Buying Jay-Z’s Tidal Music Service for $300 Million 

Peter Kafka, writing at Recode:

Here is the straight news headline: Square, the financial services company run by Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey, is buying Tidal, the streaming music service founded by Jay-Z.

And here is the question you, a normal person, may have about this deal: WTF?

The answer, depending on how you’re inclined to look at deals between billionaires, could be intriguing, silly, or stupid. Maybe all of the above.

At Least 30,000 U.S. Organizations Newly Hacked via Holes in Microsoft’s Email Software 

Brian Krebs, Krebs on Security:

At least 30,000 organizations across the United States — including a significant number of small businesses, towns, cities and local governments — have over the past few days been hacked by an unusually aggressive Chinese cyber espionage unit that’s focused on stealing email from victim organizations, multiple sources tell KrebsOnSecurity. The espionage group is exploiting four newly-discovered flaws in Microsoft Exchange Server email software, and has seeded hundreds of thousands of victim organizations worldwide with tools that give the attackers total, remote control over affected systems. […]

In each incident, the intruders have left behind a “web shell,” an easy-to-use, password-protected hacking tool that can be accessed over the Internet from any browser. The web shell gives the attackers administrative access to the victim’s computer servers.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, two cybersecurity experts who’ve briefed U.S. national security advisors on the attack told KrebsOnSecurity the Chinese hacking group thought to be responsible has seized control over “hundreds of thousands” of Microsoft Exchange Servers worldwide — with each victim system representing approximately one organization that uses Exchange to process email.

Microsoft Windows and Exchange have always been insecure, and probably always will be. It’s amazing how many widely-publicized hacks you can ignore if you just never use Windows or use Exchange server software. The massive SolarWinds hack exposed last month only affected organizations running Microsoft’s IT infrastructure too.

Apple Discontinues the iMac Pro, Apple Store Says Buy ‘While Supplies Last’ 

Benjamin Mayo, reporting for 9to5Mac:

The iMac Pro does not seem to be long for this world as the Apple Store on Friday removed all build-to-order configurations for the product. The only model now available to buy is the $4999 base config and the Apple Store says that is only available ‘while supplies last’. Some other SKUs remain available at third-party retailers for the time being.

Stu Maschwitz, on Twitter:

My iMac Pro has been the most stable, reliable computer I’ve ever owned. The cooling system is a masterpiece. It’s lasted me over three years and shows no signs of needing replacement.

The cooling system of the iMac Pro is simply uncanny. I’d hold it up as the best Mac Apple made, period, of the entire Intel era. The best days for pro-level iMacs are ahead of us, though, I suspect.

Yours Truly Rapping at Length About Old Macs 

Speaking of Jason Snell, he’s releasing extended versions of the extensive interviews he did last year for his excellent 20 Macs for 2020 series. Last month he started with a three-episode series with John Siracusa (1, 2, 3).

This week starts my turn. In the first one, we talk about the Power Mac G5, PowerBook Duo, PowerBook 500 and 5300, Blue-and-White Power Mac G3, DayStar Genesis MP, Mac Mini, Mac IIcx and IIci, and the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh. (I could have done a whole hour on the IIci — what a remarkable machine that was.)

Jason Snell on iOS Markdown Editors 

Jason Snell, writing at Six Colors:

The App Store is littered with Markdown text editors, but not all Markdown implementations are created equal. I expect my Markdown editor to show me every single keystroke I enter, which means any attempt to hide hyperlinks will be met with immediate rejection. (Sorry, Ulysses and Craft.) I do appreciate syntax coloring and styling where appropriate — so that bolded text is bolded, and headings are prominent… so long as the app doesn’t swallow the markup that makes them so.

Maybe I don’t know much about Markdown, but my understanding is that the whole point of it is to provide a syntax where the most common HTML tags for prose can be replaced by simple punctuation characters that are meant to be visible to the writer. I want to see the characters so I know I’ll get exactly the HTML output I think I’m going to get, but those punctuation characters shouldn’t distract from the readability of the prose. I created Markdown to use in BBEdit without any syntax coloring at all, and to this day, I do most of my Markdown editing in MarsEdit, which doesn’t color or style Markdown syntax at all. (It should though! Markdown is even better with some syntax coloring and styling.)

I have no idea why there are now apps that use Markdown as their back end storage format but only show styled text without the Markdown source code visible. Hey World, for example, gets this right: they just do simple WYSIWYG editing where bold is bold, italic is italic, and links look like links and the linked URL is edited in a popup. If you want WYSIWYG, do WYSIWYG. If you want Markdown, show the Markdown. Trust me, it’s meant to be shown.

Apple Now Has a Feature to Transfer Your iCloud Photo Library to Google Photos 

Apple support document:

You can request to transfer a copy of photos and videos you store in iCloud Photos to Google Photos. Transferring photos and videos from iCloud Photos doesn’t remove or alter the content you store with Apple, but sends a copy of your content to the other service.

The transfer process takes between three and seven days. We use this time to verify that the request was made by you, and to make the transfer.

Some data and formats available in iCloud Photos — such as Smart Albums, Live Photos, or some RAW files — may not be available when you transfer your content to another service. More information about what data is transferred is listed below.

Would be cool if Google provided a feature to go the other way. (Via Juli Clover at MacRumors.)

Utah Legislature Passes Bill Mandating Porn Filter on All Phones and Tablets 

Gustavo Turner, reporting for XBiz:

Utah’s controversial “porn filter” bill passed the State Senate this afternoon on a 19-6 vote (with four absences), a Salt Lake City capitol source told XBIZ. The bill, introduced into the Utah Senate last month by staunch anti-porn crusader Wayne A. Harper, is now headed to the Governor’s desk to be signed into law.

On February 19, the Utah House of Representatives passed an amended version of the controversial bill that would mandate a default “porn filter” on any phones, computers, tablets or any other electronic devices sold in the state starting in 2022.

HB 72, sponsored by Rep. Susan Pulsipher (R-South Jordan) — a realtor with no technology experience — was speedily passed by the House only hours after it had cleared the committee stage by the narrowest of margins (a 6-5 vote).

Good luck with that — Utahns love porno.

(If you think this is a silly thing for an individual state to attempt to mandate, keep it in mind if you find yourself rooting for any of the various state-by-state attempts to regulate iOS and Android.)

Amazon Basics Ripped Off Peak Design’s Everyday Sling 

Amazon even called their rip-off the same name — “Everyday Sling” — although they’ve since changed the name to “Camera Bag”. The crew at Peak Design did the right thing in response: they mercilessly mocked Amazon in this video. (Via Core77.)

Hey World Blogging Goes Live 

From idea to a shipping feature in just a few weeks. Here’s a simple search on Twitter to see all the Hey World posts that have been tweeted so far.

Everyone knows friction in software is harmful. But I think we all continually underestimate just how big an influence friction is on what people actually do and use. People don’t write long multi-tweet threads because it’s a good way to post a short essay, they do it because it’s so low friction. That’s what makes Hey World such a great idea. If you’re using Hey for email, there’s literally nothing you need to do to set it up.

Can you edit your posts? Yep. Creating a new post is exactly like sending an email to the magic [email protected] address, but once sent/posted, Hey treats such messages differently than regular emails. You can see all your Hey World posts in a list by themselves, accessed from a new item in the main Hey menu, and if you open a post, you can edit it.

eBay Is Delisting Dr. Seuss Books Taken Out of Print This Week 

Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, reporting for The Wall Street Journal:

Online marketplace eBay Inc. said it is working to prevent the resale of six Dr. Seuss books that were pulled earlier this week by the company in charge of the late author’s works because they contain offensive imagery.

“EBay is currently sweeping our marketplace to remove these items,” a spokeswoman for the company said in an email. New copies of the six books were no longer for sale online at major retailers such as Barnes & Noble on Thursday afternoon, which put eBay among the most prominent platforms for the books to be sold.

Harry McCracken:

Ending publication of these books is a reasonable move, but I’m not sure about eBay’s logic here, other than avoiding bad PR. Unless it now wants to police its site and remove every old item containing offensive stereotypes, which would be a LOT of stuff.

(BTW, I would also have been fine with Dr. Seuss Enterprises revising these books to remove the stereotypes. They’ve already tampered with the Dr.’s legacy in a zillion ways that bother me a lot more.)

I agree with McCracken on both points. I mean, you can buy copies of Mein Kampf but not If I Ran the Zoo? Banning books is always a sign of out-of-control zealotry.

The EFF: ‘Google’s FLoC Is a Terrible Idea’ 

Bennett Cyphers, writing for the EFF:

Google is leading the charge to replace third-party cookies with a new suite of technologies to target ads on the Web. And some of its proposals show that it hasn’t learned the right lessons from the ongoing backlash to the surveillance business model. This post will focus on one of those proposals, Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), which is perhaps the most ambitious — and potentially the most harmful.

FLoC is meant to be a new way to make your browser do the profiling that third-party trackers used to do themselves: in this case, boiling down your recent browsing activity into a behavioral label, and then sharing it with websites and advertisers. The technology will avoid the privacy risks of third-party cookies, but it will create new ones in the process. It may also exacerbate many of the worst non-privacy problems with behavioral ads, including discrimination and predatory targeting.

Google’s pitch to privacy advocates is that a world with FLoC (and other elements of the “privacy sandbox”) will be better than the world we have today, where data brokers and ad-tech giants track and profile with impunity. But that framing is based on a false premise that we have to choose between “old tracking” and “new tracking.” It’s not either-or. Instead of re-inventing the tracking wheel, we should imagine a better world without the myriad problems of targeted ads.

This helps explain Google’s message yesterday. They’re moving their tracking from third-party cookies that they process through the cloud to tracking that’s done in Chrome. Basically I think that’s it.

If you prefer a Chromium-based browser, you should use one other than Chrome. I like Brave for my (occasional) Chromium browser needs, but Microsoft’s Edge might be a good choice too. Brave bills itself as a privacy browser; at this point it seems fair to say Google is turning Chrome into an anti-privacy browser. It’s that simple.

Geoffrey Fowler, writing for The Washington Post back in October:

Over the last two decades, Google has made changes in drips rather than big makeovers. To see how search results have changed, what you’d need is a time machine. Good news: We have one of those!

The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine stored some Google search results over the years. When we look back, a picture emerges of how Google increasingly fails us. There’s more space dedicated to ads that look like search results. More results start with answer “snippets” — sometimes incorrect — ripped from other sites. And increasingly, results point you back to Google’s own properties such as Maps and YouTube, where it can show more ads and gather more of your data.

I’d say Google’s biggest weakness in search isn’t that would-be competitors have gotten better, but what Fowler illustrates here: Google’s own search results have clearly gotten worse. The comparison of how low they sometimes push the top actual result are eye opening. It’s been a slow boil from the Google of old to today, but if you took a Google search user from 2005 and showed them Google search today, they’d think it was halfway to Idiocracy. (Personally, I think it seems clear that the quality of Google search results — or at least the presentation of those results — started its decline when Marissa Mayer left Google to become CEO of Yahoo in 2012.)

This, effectively, is why I’ve been happy using DuckDuckGo as my default search engine for years now. I don’t think the breadth or accuracy of their actual search results is as good as Google’s, but because their presentation of results is better — far less cluttered, often with no ads in the results at all, never with more than two ads — I find the overall experience to be better, even putting aside all my concerns about Google and privacy.

The other thing I wonder about is how much modern web browsers have broken typical users of the habit of “going to Google”. How many people actually go to google.com to search, and how many just type search terms in the browser location field? If most people just type search terms in the location field, a browser that switches from Google to another engine by default will switch those users automatically. How many people would even notice a switch given that nearly all search engines style results in a generally Google-like way?

Thomas Claburn, writing for The Register:

Brave intends to make Tailcat the foundation of its own search service, Brave Search. The company hopes that its more than 25 million monthly active Brave customers will, after an initial period of testing and courtship, choose to make Brave Search their default search engine and will use it alongside other parts of its privacy-oriented portfolio, which also includes Brave Ads, news reader Brave Today, Brave Firewall+VPN, and video conferencing system Brave Together.

Brave Search, the company insists, will respect people’s privacy by not tracking or profiling those using the service. And it may even offer a way to end the debate about search engine bias by turning search result output over to a community-run filtering system called Goggles.

The service will, eventually, be available as a paid option — for those who want to pay for search results without ads — though its more common incarnation is likely to be ad-supported, in conjunction with Brave Ads. The latter offers participants the option to receive 70 per cent of the payment made by the advertiser in a cryptocurrency called BAT (Brave Attention Token).

When, if ever, will popular browsers start defaulting to search engines other than Google? That’s the question.

And for Apple in particular, it’s a question of an enormous sum of money. The exact figure Google pays Apple in traffic acquisition costs as a result of it being the default search engine in Safari (which in turn is the default browser on iOS and the Mac) is a tightly held secret. But Goldman Sachs analyst Rod Hall estimated the figure at $9.5 billion for 2018 and $12 billion for 2019.

Putting aside the question of whether any non-Google search engine provides good enough search results to replace Google as Safari’s default — a huge question! — if Apple were to make such a move in the name of privacy, it almost certainly would come as a multi-billion dollar annual hit to the company’s Services revenue.

Apple’s total Services revenue for FY2020 was about $54 billion. Would they take a $10 billion hit to that in the name of privacy? (Perhaps more interesting to flip the question around: If they care so deeply about privacy as a human right, why haven’t they already?)

NYT: ‘Colleges That Require Coronavirus Screening Tech Struggle to Say Whether It Works’ 

Natasha Singer and Kellen Browning, reporting for The New York Times:

Before the University of Idaho welcomed students back to campus last fall, it made a big bet on new virus-screening technology. The university spent $90,000 installing temperature-scanning stations, which look like airport metal detectors, in front of its dining and athletic facilities in Moscow, Idaho. When the system clocks a student walking through with an unusually high temperature, the student is asked to leave and go get tested for Covid-19.

But so far the fever scanners, which detect skin temperature, have caught fewer than 10 people out of the 9,000 students living on or near campus. Even then, university administrators could not say whether the technology had been effective because they have not tracked students flagged with fevers to see if they went on to get tested for the virus. […]

“So why are we bothering?” said Bruce Schneier, a prominent security technologist who has described such screening systems as “security theater” — that is, tools that make people feel better without actually improving their safety. “Why spend the money?”

Maybe “COVID theater” instead of “security theater”, but these technology purchases look like a whole lot of bullshit, just like the exposure notification apps for phones. We don’t need any of this. What we need are vaccinations, a few months of patience until more of those vaccinations are administered, and good serious plans for future outbreaks. If institutions like colleges want to spend money in the short term, they should spend the money on widespread COVID testing.

Apple Clarifies When It Locks Your Apple ID Because You Owe Them Money 

Statement from Apple to 9to5Mac, regarding yesterday’s much-publicized story about Dustin Curtis getting locked out of his Apple ID:

We apologize for any confusion or inconvenience we may have caused for this customer. The issue in question involved a restriction on the customer’s Apple ID that disabled App Store and iTunes purchases and subscription services, excluding iCloud. Apple provided an instant credit for the purchase of a new MacBook Pro, and as part of that agreement, the customer was to return their current unit to us. No matter what payment method was used, the ability to transact on the associated Apple ID was disabled because Apple could not collect funds. This is entirely unrelated to Apple Card.

Seems like a more reasonable situation than it first appeared, but, still, good to know that this is how it works.

The heart of Curtis’s saga is that he got instant credit for an old MacBook, didn’t send it back to Apple on time, and changed the bank account backing his credit card so Apple’s chargeback for the device trade-in didn’t take. When I, or family members, have sent devices in for trade-in (iPhones, usually), we haven’t been credited for the trade-in until after Apple has acknowledged receiving the old device.

It’s Now March and Most of Google’s Flagship iOS Apps Still Don’t Have Privacy Nutrition Labels 

Speaking of Google and tracking, the saga with Google’s iOS apps and their lack of privacy nutrition labels continues. Remember that (a) Google told TechCrunch back on January 5 they expected to add the privacy labels “this week or the next week”, and (b) because they haven’t added the labels, none of these popular apps have been updated since December. This includes Google Maps, Google Photos, the main Google search app, and Google Chrome. If you look at the version histories for these apps, until January, they were all generally updated at least once per month, and often several times per month.

YouTube, Google Home, and Google Drive, on the other hand, do have privacy nutrition labels. So whatever is going on here is not company-wide.

Correction: I originally had Gmail listed as one of Google’s apps that hadn’t been updated, but it was — just yesterday, after adding the privacy nutrition label a week ago. Google just seems to be adding these labels piecemeal, one at a time.

Google Claims It Will Replace Tracking With Privacy-Preserving Ads 

David Temkin, director of product management for ads privacy and trust, writing on the Google Blog:

Today, we’re making explicit that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products.

We realize this means other providers may offer a level of user identity for ad tracking across the web that we will not — like PII graphs based on people’s email addresses. We don’t believe these solutions will meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor will they stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions, and therefore aren’t a sustainable long term investment. Instead, our web products will be powered by privacy-preserving APIs which prevent individual tracking while still delivering results for advertisers and publishers.

Honestly, I read this post twice and I don’t really know what it means. It sounds good on the surface, but cynically, it also sounds like an obfuscated way of saying that Google has figured out a way to continue tracking users but doesn’t think that counts as “tracking” because it’s all “first party” on Google properties:

We will continue to support first-party relationships on our ad platforms for partners, in which they have direct connections with their own customers. And we’ll deepen our support for solutions that build on these direct relationships between consumers and the brands and publishers they engage with.

The WSJ is taking Google at its word, with this lede:

Google plans to stop selling ads based on individuals’ browsing across multiple websites, a change that could hasten upheaval in the digital advertising industry.

Amazon Tweaks Their New iOS App Icon 

I know, opinions about app icons are like assholes — everyone has one and they generally stink. But Amazon’s previous iOS app icon was, objectively, terrible. For one thing, the only thing about it that branded it as Amazon’s was the word “Amazon”. When your icon is your name, you’ve probably got a problem. But the other problem was the shopping cart. The whole point of Amazon being an online store is that you don’t need a shopping cart. They’ve been stretching this metaphor for over two decades but it’s not a good one.

I love the idea of using a cardboard box as the icon. That’s the iconic real-world object we all associate with Amazon. Sure sometimes you’re just getting something boring like toothpaste or deodorant. But sometimes you get something great — like a new book you preordered a few months back and sort of forgot about. Sometimes a box from Amazon is fun. So hell yes, make the app icon a fun cardboard box.

My problem with the new icon isn’t that the tape looked like a Hitler mustache. (They could’ve solved that by just putting tape on both ends of the box — boxes need tape on the bottom too.) It’s that the ethos of utterly flat design robs the concept of fun. Look at how much better the MacOS standard installer package icon looks than Amazon’s new icon. Just for a boring installer. Amazon is doing the right thing by today’s design trend — it’s the trend that’s wrong, and designers need to start asserting otherwise.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king; in the land of militantly flat design, a little bit of depth will spark joy.

Apple Disabled Dustin Curtis’s iCloud, App Store, and Apple ID Accounts Over Rejected Chargeback 

Dustin Curtis:

The next time I tried to use my Apple Card, it was declined. Strange. I checked the Wallet app, and the balance was below the limit. I remembered the Apple support representative mumbling about Apple Card, so I did some digging through my email to see if I could find a connection.

As it turns out, my bank account number changed in January, causing Apple Card autopay to fail. Then the Apple Store made a charge on the card. Less than fifteen days after that, my App Store, iCloud, Apple Music, and Apple ID accounts had all been disabled by Apple Card.

We all make bets on these ecosystems. Even if you host your own email at your own domain name (to name just one service) you’re probably not running the actual server. And even if you are running the actual server hosting your email, you’re still placing a bet on the service provider / data center hosting the server.

I’ve got a lot of my digital life bet on iCloud in this way. It doesn’t seem like there should even be a path on Apple’s side of things from “you missed a payment on your Apple Card” to “we’re locking you out of your Apple ID”. Apple shutting your Apple ID off shuts you off from a lot.

Update: Apple statement on what actually happened and under what circumstances they’ll lock your Apple ID if you owe them money.

Weather Line Acquired by Mystery Buyer 

Weather Line:

In recent months, we were approached by a buyer. They saw the uniqueness of Weather Line and the strong foundation we’ve built. While we aren’t able to provide further details on their future plans for the app, we hope you can understand, and will look forward to it.

The acquisition means the app is going away. Today, we removed Weather Line from the App Store. For all existing Weather Line users, free and paid, the app will continue working for 13 months, until April 1, 2022.

Weather Line has been consistently excellent, and has been one of my very favorite apps since it debuted. A great app that always stayed at the forefront of iOS design and forged a distinct identity with an infographic-focused design.

All good things must come to an end, but it feels particularly sad with Weather Line. Of all weather apps I’ve used — and I’ve used a lot — Weather Line is the best suited to iOS 14 widgets. Weather Line’s presentation has been widget-like since before there were widgets.

I’ll enjoy it while I can.