Apple Starting To Lose Their Core Value Prop?  

So, Apple had a pretty bad week. Rather than rehashing that, I’ll point out a couple of issues that have been plaguing me as of late, that make me slightly worried with the direction things are heading. It’s the little things that erode the core value prop of the Apple ecosystem, which was that everything just works.

I used to build my own computer, fiddle with autoexec.bat and config.sys and himem.sys and RAM doubling and IRQs and changing PCI slots and all that fun stuff. My friends and I used to talk about all the ways we’d stretch more power out of our computers to play the latest games, or run the new fangled Windows 3.11. Or, later, when we got more experimental, playing with Linux.

Then I grew up and had other stuff I needed to do. And Macs, with OS X and the move to Intel, became a really viable alternative. Shit just worked. Then the iPhone came out. And it just worked. And I didn’t have to worry about any of that stuff any more. The time I used to spend fiddling to get things working was now spent fiddling to make my life easier (or actually doing other stuff).

The last year or two has seen an erosion of that value prop. It’s tied almost entirely to Apple’s move to cloud services and it’s on device machine learning. Now, I still find that most of what I need to work works well enough that I’m still bought into the Apple ecosystem. But when stuff goes wrong, there’s just no way to diagnose it or fix it, as Apple has hidden that away (particularly on iOS). And their inability to make small changes server side, or even ship delta updates that don’t require a full OS upgrade, are problematic. They either leave things broken for weeks until they can ship an OS upgrade, or they ship small patches that still require minutes to upgrade and reboot a device that many folks depend on as part of their daily life.

This sounds really bad. It’s not that bad. But it’s worrying.

For example, there are two features in iOS Mail that are just killing me right now.

  • The suggested folder to move messages to works really well. Until it doesn’t. And when it stops working the way you think it should, there’s no way to fix it. For example, any time I get a message from a couple of people, it suggests I move that message to the Sent Items folder. Because I often reply to messages from them. That’s just dumb. I would never move messages to the Sent folder. Another example: I changed email addresses and setup some newsletters to go to the new address. iOS Mail suggests I move the messages to the folder in the old address. Or at least I think it does—it’s hard to tell which folder it means because there’s no info other than folder name. I know that, for a while, it was moving them to the old folder. Which, again, would never be something I want to do.
  • There’s one person who sends me mail and when I look at his messages, iOS pulls in every message (literally) I have as part of a thread. I have no idea why that’s the case. It only happens with this one person. I can turn off the option that pulls messages in from filed messages (i.e. rather than only showing what’s in the inbox) and it fixes it. But that sucks, because that feature is actually useful.

In both cases, there’s nothing I can do. I can’t look at logs or files or debug databases. At least not in any meaningful way. My only recourse is to file a bug and hope that some day it gets looked at.

Similarly, in iOS Safari, when I upgraded to my new iPhone X, I somehow lost half of the “top sites” that Safari displays on a new tab. Not a big deal, but something I use reasonably frequently. I’m not sure why the four sites that are still there are there, how to get others added, or what the threshold is. Is it frequency over a time period? Most visits all time? Most visits all time to a page that’s not in your bookmarks?

It’s not that big a deal, but it’d be great if there was any way for me to figure out the logic behind why some sites show up and some don’t.

These are just small nuisances that make using iOS slightly more friction-filled than it should be. Add these little nuisances to the bigger issues, and the “it just works” ethos starts eroding.

We’re nowhere near me using something fiddly like Android, or going back to Linux or Windows on the desktop. But I could see how that might happen now.

I’m hoping that Apple takes the recent spate of issues, both hardware and software, to heart and puts some dollars and people behind fixing this. From the outside, it feels very fixable, but we’ll see how Apple responds.

Articles Worth Reading  

There’s a lot going on lately. Over the past few weeks, I’ve come across a few articles that I think are worth reading, as they express more coherently some thoughts I’ve had.

Ben Thompson Is Wrong About the Deregulation of ISPs

Ben Thompson of Stratechery wrote an article talking about why he thought the current FCC plan to undo the Obama-era Net Neutrality Title II classification was wrong. I felt that Thompson’s arguments were wrong, but aside from the idea that there’s any ISP competition in the US (there’s not, which is a significant issue), I couldn’t quite put my finger on where his argument fell down. Well, Nick Heer put his finger on it, and then put 4 more fingers on it and punched Thompson’s argument square in the mouth. It’s a wonderfully straightforward takedown of Thompson’s argument as well as the entire Ajit Pai (who legitimately must be soulless) argument for repealing Title II classification. My favorite part, referencing the idea that, should ISPs try to do anything untoward, that the government will step in, or consumers will fight back with their dollars:

This is completely disproven by countless instances of corporate wrongdoing in modern American history. Banks and hedge funds already have a terrible name for helping cause the 2008 financial crisis, but many of them are still around and more valuable than ever. BP is still one of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies despite causing one of the world’s biggest environmental catastrophes.

Moreover, it isn’t as though ISPs are revered. They regularly rank towards the bottom of consumer happiness surveys. It’s not like their reputation can get much worse. And, with a lack of competition — especially amongst fixed broadband providers — it’s not like Americans have many options to turn to when their ISP suddenly starts behaving badly.

The Case for Normalizing Impeachment

It’s easy to pile on the call for impeachment because the current president is clearly unfit for office and is using the office to wage a petty war against his perceived enemies and to grow the wealth of the very people he campaigned against (leaving those who voted for him behind, while he uses Fox News to convince them that it’s somehow not his fault). Like I said, it’s easy. But Ezra Klein makes a reasonable argument that impeachment was put in place, with a somewhat vague definition of what is impeachable, for the very reason that at some point, we might elect someone who, it turns out, isn’t very good.

The pertinent graf:

it is profoundly reckless. We have made the presidency too powerful to leave the holder of the office functionally unaccountable for four years. We have created a political culture in which firing our national executive is viewed as a crisis rather than as a difficult but occasionally necessary act. And we have done this even though we recognize that the consequences of leaving the wrong president in power can include horrors beyond imagination — World War III, as Sen. Corker suggested.

I Had Never Touched a Gun Before the Las Vegas Massacre. Then I Bought One.

Sean Nelson’s attempt to understand gun culture after the most recent mass shooting in Las Vegas. Really interesting article, that I think is pretty fair minded about arguments on both sides. Now, I say that as someone who grew up around guns, enjoys shooting them, but doesn’t own one and is fully supportive of increased gun control measures. So I like to think I’m not biased, but I probably am. Anyway …

On the way to Heathrow Airport, the day after the Sutherland Springs massacre, my very chatty cab driver, a man who’d moved to England from Jamaica in 1966, heard my accent and asked me, unprompted, “Why you all so crazy with your guns?”

I said I had no idea, though I had a few. I didn’t mention my own gun, which I had of course left at home, cleared, unloaded, and locked away in an empty apartment. We talked briefly about the constitutional issue, the cultural divide, and other facets of the debate, but he scoffed at the idea that it was complex. To him, the reason to have a gun was to kill someone.

I found I couldn’t disagree. And before we reached the terminal, I’d decided that the best way to exercise my Second Amendment right was to waive it, and get rid of my gun as soon as I got home.

Worth a read.

One Year Later  

One year later, America is slowly waking up.

Representative Scott Taylor, a Republican from Virginia Beach, said he considered the Democratic sweep in Virginia a repudiation of the White House. He faulted Mr. Trump’s “divisive rhetoric” for propelling the party to defeat, and said he believed traditionally Republican-leaning voters contributed to Mr. Northam’s margin of victory.

“I do believe that this is a referendum on this administration,” Mr. Taylor said of the elections. “Democrats turned out tonight, but I’m pretty sure there were some Republicans who spoke loudly and clearly tonight as well.”

Channeling the shock of Republicans across the state, Mr. Taylor voiced disbelief at the party’s rout down ballot. “I know folks that lost tonight who were going against candidates I’d never even heard of,” he said.

I have an affinity for Virginia, obviously, so I’m proud of the state that elected a transgender person over someone who called themselves “Chief homophobe” and elected Chris Hurst, who is a gun control supporter (who lost his girlfriend in a horrible incident) and campaigned on issues like that and access to health care.

In Virginia, health care was the big factor for most voters. Same in Maine, where they voted to expand Medicaid coverage.

The next big event is in a month in Alabama. Keeping Roy Moore out of the Senate should be a national priority.

11 Weeks  

  • 11 weeks
  • Approximately 1200 diapers
  • Approximately 2500 wipes
  • Over 300 oz of milk in the freezer
  • Two little guys starting to be real people

The boys

The Slow Decline of Twitter  

I’ve used Twitter since 2007, I think. I’ve got over 6000 tweets. When Twitter is at its best, it’s right in the sweet spot for me. Unfortunately, due to what is either poor or uninterested leadership, or fear of a market correction to their share price, Twitter is rarely at its best lately.

It’s far more often a cesspool of racism, misogyny, false information, bullying, and everything bad that happens when under the veil of anonymity. Whatever parts of Twitter aren’t filled with vile content are talking about Twitter’s lack of response to that content.

You can’t shake a stick without finding an article talking about Twitter’s issues, or how they’re trying to deal with them, or how they’re trying to look like they’re trying to deal with them.

To me, it really does look like they’re trying to look like they’re trying to deal with them, doing the minimum they can that won’t materially change their monthly active users, assuming that this will blow over.

I think that’s a) idiotic, and b) just a shitty way to deal with a real problem.

Naively, I think Twitter’s problems boil down to two major things:

  • automation
  • identity

The automation side is to make it easier to identify and highlight the (often) garbage posts that come out of bots. It seems to me that if Twitter highlighted (visually and via the API) posts that came through it’s API (i.e. automated posts) that people would start to discount their content. Sure, for folks who do scheduled tweets, they’d show up differently, but now someone would likely need to build up trust with their followers to take the automated posts with the same validity as their normal posts.

And, when someone wants to create a new bot, they’ll need to spend time manually building up their authority, which is, in theory, at least a deterrent to creating bots at scale that are intended for deception.

Now, of course, you can automate posting through browser automation, but that’s slower, harder to scale, and more fragile. This is one of those simple, low hanging fruit changes that has little impact to users, but at least makes creating deceptive bots more difficult.

(This doesn’t take into account a bunch of the simple fraud things that Twitter should be doing anyway, like additional checks on users with lots of digits in their name or where the signup is coming from a VPN or non-residential network.)

The identity issue is about making it harder for people to be assholes. You get less (not zero, but less) assholes on Facebook because their actual name is listed right next to their comments. Twitter (and Reddit, to be honest) should do something with accounts that haven’t somehow verified their identity. Identify verification isn’t an easy problem to solve, but there are possibilities:

  • Pass the whole thing off to Facebook
  • Require some sort of phone validation
  • Don’t allow unverified (maybe with some snail mail or other human validating method) accounts to reply or @message anyone

There’s probably a whole lot of other ways to do this. Again, you’re not trying to solve the problem outright. You’re just trying to make it hard enough that it’s not worth the manual effort to setup fake accounts. And making it clear enough to users that they aren’t anonymous so threatening violence or harm to other user’s is going to be linked back to you.

When people have their comments and behavior tied directly to their identity, it makes it a lot harder to be a complete asshole. It’s how you lose your job or embarrass your family.

None of this is rocket science. It’s a tradeoff between “freedom of speech” with complete anonymity and “freedom of speech” where you own your words. Somehow Twitter and Reddit think anonymity is needed for free speech as if they’re the only outlets for someone to speak anonymously.

Really, it is Twitter not wanting to lose users (even if they are fake) to disappoint Wall Street.

I started writing this a few days ago. Before I could finish it, Twitter announced upcoming changes for handling abuse. THey’re all reactive. They’re all based off of humans responding to abuse. There’s nothing proactive about it.

Oh yeah, and the other news this week? Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey retweeted a Russian bot. You seriously can’t make this shit up.

There’s a lot of smart people at Twitter. I’m sure there are people there who have great ideas on how to stop the abuse. I hope that those ideas are being worked on and not being stymied by the financial interests of the company. Because if Twitter keeps alienating its core users, there won’t be a company (at least an independent one) in the future.

Have Alfred Not Show File Extensions (like .app)  

This is mostly a post so that I’ll find this when inevitably I get myself into this situation again.

I’m guessing I was playing with settings shortly after upgrading to the latest MacOS, and I must have clicked Finder’s “Show all filename extensions”. Later, when using Alfred, I noticed it was returning results like “Safari.app” rather than Safari.

I spent a bunch of time trying to figure out which Alfred setting I had ticked.

After a bit of googling, I found this StackOverflow article that pointed me to that Finder setting.

Also, you should buy Alfred. It’s great.

First vs. Second  

These thoughts aren’t fully formed. I’ve given myself some space, but things are still raw and I’m sure there’s flaws here. But it’s how I feel. And I’m tired. But, here’s words.

After the events in Las Vegas (and Orlando, Sandy Hook, and damn near every state in this country), we’ve seen once again that our government (read: GOP) is more worried about the NRA than they are the survival of their citizens.

I’m not one of the zealots who says “take away all the guns.” I grew up shooting BB guns in the backyard, in a town where hunting was the fall/winter sport, with a dad (and brothers) who hunted regularly.1 Add in two uncles who were police officers, and I had an opportunity to shoot a variety of guns growing up. Shooting guns can be fun. I’ve got no moral objection to someone keeping their rifles, and shotguns, and even their handguns they want for personal protection (even if that’s a fallacy).

I am, however, completely ok with banning semi-automatic and automatic weapons. They aren’t used for hunting (and if they are, that’s not sport). They’re not going to save your family, unless you truly are worried about the government coming to kill you. The odds of which, of course, probably get higher if you’ve got a whole bunch of automatic weapons, but, whatever …

But, somehow, in this country, we’ve reached a point where any limitations on gun ownership are a risk to our sovereignty. Or something. I don’t know what the argument is (or I do, but I think it’s predominantly bullshit). There’s clearly a way to solve this. That’s why we have laws and a government. To address and solve problems for the collective good.

Banning the types of weapons that are continually used in these crimes is surely not too hard. Or at least it’s worth trying, right?

You can start small: mental health checks, waiting period, maybe a limit on the number of certain types of weapons you can own.

You can make the penalties more aggressive: if a gun you sold or you own is used in a crime, you’re an accessory. As a gun dealer, if you want to sell guns, you should know who you’re selling to. If your gun is stolen, you should report it, so you’re not held culpable. Sure, there are loads of holes in this, but you could start somewhere.

Then you come back to the argument like this one, from the reprehensible Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky:

To all those political opportunists who are seizing on the tragedy in Las Vegas to call for more gun regs…You can’t regulate evil…

Sure … you can’t. But that’s what we do? We try to. The right thinks abortion is evil, so they try to block access to it. We have speed limits, safety checks on food/toys/cars/etc. We try to regulate evil as much as we can. We try to make it harder for those who want to do evil to achieve it.

But, I guess that’s too hard for a guy who actively took health care away from his citizens.

But all of this Second Amendment stuff is happening in parallel to a whole bunch of First Amendment stuff.

Football players kneeling during the National Anthem has become a big enough deal that our President had to get involved, calling the participants “sons of bitches”. Encouraging the owners to fire them.

Which, I think is stupid, but I’m not against it. It’s the risk you take when you use your job to make a First Amendment stand. You’re allowed to make pretty much any statement. It doesn’t mean your employer has to keep you.

That being said, I don’t think the NFL is going to fire their players. Nor do I think they should, as I think there’s a difference in peacefully protesting racial inequality vs. putting together a document about why your female colleagues aren’t predisposed to be as good as their male counterparts. One of those makes you an asshole whom no one wants to work with.

I don’t think private enterprises, like Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and Google are required to offer everyone an equal platform. Particularly when one of those platforms tends to be abusive and full of outright lies. The cesspool of Reddit’s subreddits, Twitter’s horrible abuse problems, and Facebook (and to some extent Google’s) ability to precisely target audiences with an inability to ensure that targeting isn’t used to lie to those audiences, have lead to those big platforms being arguably a social net negative.

In fact, I think Facebook and Twitter, right now, as useful as they are, might be ultimately negative for society. They have fixable problems, but they’re choosing revenue over society. They don’t want to make it harder for people to signup, or reduce their reach, so Russian bots and shitty, false ads are promoted and make people believe that the Las Vegas shooter was a leftist, Rachel Maddow viewer (he wasn’t, as they had the wrong person, but those stories didn’t care).

Ironically, Facebook and Twitter could easily (very easily) solve these problems. To some extent it’s technological and will inhibit, however slightly, growth (more checks on signups, validating that people are human). To some extent, it’s the thing that anathema to those companies: hiring people to do some of this validating.

In the end, those abuses of the First Amendment on the big social platforms are used to scare people into thinking the world is a horrible place (crime is lower now than it’s really ever been). Which makes them want to keep more guns. Or, it seems that way, ay least.

Zuckerberg, in particular, has an opportunity here. Facebook isn’t shutting down over night. He’s got control of the company, and claims to really want to help make things better in the future. Why not make a change right now? Why not make a big stand and shut down fake news (the real fake news), bad actors, bullshit advertising.

It is time to try to make things better. We should try to make it harder to get guns that can cause mass destruction just because of a vaguely worded Second Amendment, and we should try to make it harder for people who want to abuse the First Amendment to have a large platform in the name of more MAUs and revenue. Don’t Facebook and Twitter (and Reddit and Google) want to be a force for social good, rather than a platform for “communication”, which has been taken over by the small percentage of folks saying (and doing) reprehensible things?

  1. I didn’t hunt because I didn’t love the killing things part. But I don’t have a real moral objection to it (when done as it’s done in the northeast/southeast, as sport, for managing wildlife and for food; not flying to Africa and killing a captive elephant.) 

GameDay in Blacksburg  

I’m watching GameDay broadcasting from Blacksburg for the first time in a long time. I remember going to the first GameDay in Blacksburg (and the second). VT was constantly pushing the boundaries supporting GameDay (biggest crowds, bringing the crazy mechanical signs). It was a huge catalyst helping to grow the Tech football program, but also Virginia Tech as a university. The higher profile and funds brought in by successful athletics programs has definitely contributed to the growth of Virginia Tech.

Post-script: I didn’t have a chance to post this until after the game. The Hokies lost, but that was the likely outcome. The exposure should be helpful for a young team to add more quality players in the next couple of seasons.

Down the Middleism  

But those who privately thought things had gone too far were given a voice by James Damore, 28, a soft-spoken Google engineer. Mr. Damore, frustrated after another diversity training, wrote a memo that he posted to an internal Google message board. In it, he argued that maybe women were not equally represented in tech because they were biologically less capable of engineering. Google fired him last month.

This normalization of a) bullshit, but moreover, b) someone who the vast majority of researchers and academics have said has little understanding of the topics in his “memo” is how we ended up with our current President and the de-shaming of white supremacy.

This feels like an attempt to call it “down the middle”, but you don’t do that when the facts are (predominantly) on one side of the argument. At a minimum, you point out where the facts don’t fit the narrative.

Or, you hire Ron Howard to do commentary on the article.

Apple vs. the Ad Companies  

From Adweek, the ad industry complaining about some new cookie protections Apple has shipped in Safari 11:

Safari’s new “Intelligent Tracking Prevention” would change the rules by which cookies are set and recognized by browsers. In addition to blocking all third-party cookies (i.e. those set by a domain other than the one being visited), as the current version of Safari does, this new functionality would create a set of haphazard rules over the use of first-party cookies (i.e. those set by a domain the user has chosen to visit) that block their functionality or purge them from users’ browsers without notice or choice.

Having worked on the internet for the bulk of my career, and having spent a bunch of time dealing with cookies, tracking for marketing, etc., I can safely say that this is bullshit.

The ad industry has gotten so gross with how it tracks users that it’s easier to argue that these changes from Apple aren’t aggressive enough.1Apple is simply identifying cookies set by 3rd parties (sites you didn’t visit directly), which are often used to track you as you browse across the internet. And they’re not blocking them outright—they’re removing them after 24 hours. Basically, “hey, you can check me out for a bit, but you’re not watching me forever”.

You should probably already browse the web with 3rd party cookies turned off, and only turn them on when necessary. And that should be almost never. Safari is giving me the choice to only let my data be shared with the sites I choose. The advertising industry gives me zero choice. Their Trump Press Secretary-level disregard for the actual facts and truth is further evidence they should be trusted about as much as you trust what comes out of the White House.

  1. Some basic grossness: let’s say you’re Facebook, and you convince everyone to put a Like button on their websites. You have a cookie that is set when a user logs into Facebook. You can also set/read a 3rd party cookie when a user lands on a page with a like button. So, now whenever a user browses the web and a Like button loads, Facebook reads the cookies and knows which users are going to which websites. Sketchy enough. But maybe you trust Facebook (you shouldn’t, but I can see trusting them more than your average adtech company). Do you trust some random stranger though? What if some nefarious company created some easy WordPress plugin to put a map on your site. And that map plugin does what Facebook’s Like button does, but now it’s sending your data back to some company you don’t know. Using your IP address, your browser user-agent, browser settings, they can make a pretty accurate unique profile for you, even if they don’t know it’s you. Until they connect it with some other data source that maybe has your name and IP address. And now they have it tied to you. Sorry, this is a long-ass footnote.