Audacious Fox

Advanced Protection works by focusing on, what Google calls, three core defenses:

  1. Requiring a physical, USB Security Key to log in to your account.
  2. Only allowing specific apps to access to your Google data. For now, the only apps that can access your data will be Google’s own.
  3. Having additional reviews and procedures for any account changes or recovery requests.

This program isn’t for everyone—Google’s clear on that—but for journalists, campaign staffers, or anyone who might be at a higher risk for hacking or phishing, this appears to be an obvious preventive step.

For the rest of us, using a strong, unique password and turning on Google’s Two-Factor Authentication should be good start. It’s also worth checking out what apps have access to your account, and then removing the ones you don’t use anymore.

Tuesday, 17 October

Yesterday, the United States Men’s National Team—with a 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago—failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup. The last time this happened was 1986.

A lot of things went wrong to get us here, but I’m still upset. A few brief, emotional, and irrational thoughts:

  • Missing the World Cup will take a lot of wind out of the sails for United States soccer. It really felt like we were building up some good momentum, too.
  • Unlike other World * events, the World Cup is actually a worldwide competition, which makes it objectively1 cooler.
  • The World Cup is only held every four years, which means I still have the rest of 2017 to finish before the four-year-countdown can start.
  • Does this mean no new jerseys? If there’s one thing a World Cup could guarantee, it’s that some designer at Nike would tweak a gradient on the old kits, and we’d be happy to pay for it.
  • Who do I root for now?

  1. Fine, subjectively. ↩︎

Wednesday, 11 October

The Verge’s Brian Patrick Byrne with a bizarre story on Cosmic Quest, a video game in NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex:

Cosmic Quest, developed by a gaming company called Creative Kingdoms, officially opened at the visitor complex in March 2016. The game costs $19.95, and allows players to “launch a rocket, redirect an asteroid, build a Martian habitat, and perform scientific experiments aboard the International Space Station.” But it doesn’t seem to have been properly vetted. […]

The Verge also discovered several typos in the game. For instance, in a bit about experiments with Martian surface chemicals, the game renders “analyze” as “analys.” The game discusses “basic chemistry principals” — should be “principles” — and says: “Now you will understand … why are research is so important.” The game spells “oxide” as “oxcide,” and, perhaps more forgivably, mistakes the verb “affect” for the noun “effect.”

Regardless whether Creative Kingdoms or Delaware North (operator of Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex) is ultimately responsible for Cosmic Quest, the fact a scientifically inaccurate space game—aimed at kids—was in NASA’s house is an embarrassment.

Wednesday, 11 October

Everyone’s seen the “Sign In to iTunes Store” dialog, where we’re asked to enter our passwords to confirm purchases or view certain iCloud settings. The problem, as pointed out by Felix Krause, is that the system dialog UI is available to all app developers, meaning a malicious app could present a fake password prompt. Considering how conditioned we are to quickly fill out and submit these dialogs, this particular phishing attack is potent.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to visually distinguish an official dialog from a phishing dialog, as the two look identical. However, Mr. Krause points out that by hitting the home button, a phishing dialog will close along with its app, but a system dialog will remain visible until canceled. Meanwhile, our best protection—for the masses, at least—is Apple’s App Store review team denying or pulling apps that try this crap.

Wednesday, 11 October

Springboard Gridlock

I like my iPhone 7, but big screens pose a reachability problem. Apple even has a mechanism within iOS called Reachability, where lightly tapping the home button twice slides the entire UI down, so the oft-on-top navigation elements are easier to hit. After several years of large iPhones, designers like Max Rudberg are starting to explore moving key UI elements to the bottom of the screen. This is good, because I like making common UI elements easier to reach, and I’m pro- anything that stops me from tempting fate and gravity whenever I’m trying to walk and tap the top-left of my iPhone’s screen.

So why, as Apple continues to invest in large screens, is the current iOS Springboard still a forced top-to-bottom, left-to-right layout?

I want this:

You want this too. Don't tell me otherwise.

Allowing me to put icons anywhere on the existing grid means I don’t need to choose between a clean home screen and hackery to keep my most-used apps within reach. This isn’t a new idea. For years, Android has both allowed an unrestricted grid layout and put default, non-docked icons near the bottom of the screen. I think it’s served them well in the era of big phones.

Since its introduction 10 years ago, the iOS Springboard has been largely unchanged. We got folders in iOS 4, but not much since then. If we’re to assume that the future is filled with 4.5–5.5 inch screens, I think affording users some flexibility in where their home screen icons go is worthy of consideration.

And now, some common questions and comments I hear whenever bringing this up with friends

Just use the Dock for your favorite apps. — I routinely use more than four apps in a given day. iOS 11’s iPad Dock almost solves this problem, but we’re talking about phones here.

Springboard is restrictive, but it’s behaves consistently, which is easier for new users to learn. — Maybe, but I think whatever usability is lost would be regained quickly with a more flexible grid.

Whenever I see a screen with a top-to-bottom, left-to-right icon layout, my mind immediately thinks of iOS. Why would Apple ditch that free branding? — Don’t worry, I hear the iPhone X notch is super identifiable. That’s what we’ll all be using next year, right?

Reachability works well enough, and it’s system-wide. — Reachability isn’t the answer, it’s a band-aid to make our current navigation-on-the-top state less annoying.

Have comments or questions of your own? Let me know.

Saturday, 7 October

Aliza Rosen and Ikuhiro Ihara, writing for the Twitter blog:

We want every person around the world to easily express themselves on Twitter, so we’re doing something new: we’re going to try out a longer limit, 280 characters, in languages impacted by cramming (which is all except Japanese, Chinese, and Korean). […]

We understand since many of you have been Tweeting for years, there may be an emotional attachment to 140 characters – we felt it, too. But we tried this, saw the power of what it will do, and fell in love with this new, still brief, constraint.

In languages that use more complex alphabets, you’ll often see single characters that represent multiple words. This Google translation of “Good morning, friends!” into Japanese results in only 9 Japanese characters, compared to the 22 characters required for the English equivalent. According to Twitter’s research, the current limit leads to less tweeting, which, for a public company with shareholders, is obviously a problem. I disagree, but I understand.

To see what these longer tweets look like, take a look at this — exactly 280 characters — post from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

Is this a good change? I don’t know. 140 characters demands tight editing and brevity. Writing a complex thought in a sentence or two is difficult, but I always saw this limitation as the best feature of Twitter. Even if you scrap the live video, pictures, polls, and direct messaging, a service with a stream of short text snippets would still be uniquely Twitter.

That said, this doesn’t appear to be a change that’s being rushed out the door. Recode first reported on a possible extension to the character limit back in September 2015, and then again in January 2016, under the internal codename, “Beyond 140”. And, to be fair, we’ve had the 140 limit for over a decade now. I can understand why Twitter would experiment with changing the formula.

However, during these past ten years, tweeting has managed to remain remarkably distinct from “blogging”, primarily due to a tweet’s succinctness. There’s something special about a place where celebrities, professional athletes, and world leaders all have to edit down their thoughts to the core. I worry that a larger character limit will open the door to Twitter feeling (and looking) a little more like every other social network out there, and a little less like Twitter. Becoming more like Facebook might be good for Twitter Inc., but a change like this is irrevocable. Doubling the amount of content a user can post will fundamentally change Twitter; the question is whether it remains recognizable when they’re done.

Tuesday, 26 September

Visions is a new quarterly publication that aims to introduce science fiction to a wider audience. Mixing classic texts and new writing, it focuses on short stories to reflect the breadth of style and ideas within the genre.

No word on pricing, but everything about this intrigues me. They’re also using a typeface called Marvin Visions, which, to my eyes, is a perfect pairing of font to content.

Friday, 22 September

Here’s the thing about Nick Heer’s yearly iOS reviews: They’re my favorite iOS pieces to read. Aside from the great writing and photos, Mr. Heer crafts some of the most cogent, contextual conversations about iOS that I get to read on the web. These aren’t short reviews, but they’re edited well.

This year, Mr. Heer changed up his format to be less about the details and more about the holistic impact of iOS 11 on you and your devices. It’s a new angle, but I dig it. Get some coffee, and go enjoy.

Thursday, 21 September

Andrés Arrieta and Alan Toner, writing for the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

With the new Safari 11 update, Apple takes an important step to protect your privacy, specifically how your browsing habits are tracked and shared with parties other than the sites you visit. In response, Apple is getting criticized by the advertising industry for “destroying the Internet’s economic model.” While the advertising industry is trying to shift the conversation to what they call the economic model of the Internet, the conversation must instead focus on the indiscriminate tracking of users and the violation of their privacy.

How’s this for an economic model: From anywhere in the world, at any time of day, on any device they own, you can market your products to a customer. Sounds like a pretty good deal, and I have to imagine the advertisers can make it work without going completely, ethically bankrupt.

Thursday, 21 September

Benjamin Mullin, Poynter:

There’s still much to be determined about WikiTribune, the as-yet unlaunched community news platform dreamed up by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. How many stories will it publish per day? How will it decide what’s news? How will volunteers work alongside professional journalists?

But as of this morning, WikiTribune has settled on the person responsible for answering those questions. Peter Bale, who was previously chief executive officer of the Center for Public Integrity and vice president of CNN International, has been named WikiTribune’s launch editor, in charge of turning Wales’ vision for a community-driven news organization into a reality.

Wednesday, 9 August

Charlie Deets:

I wish I could rip into this system more and let you know how they could have done things better, but Nintendo really nailed so much of this interface out the gate. My main concern is what feature creep will do to this experience over time. I’ve seen the PS4 start as a fairly clean interface and become noisy and less reliable for the sake of added engagement. I hope Nintendo chooses not to go that route. Engagement doesn’t make a lot of sense in a system level games UI, since the primary purpose of the interface is navigation and control.

I’m shocked this is the same company that made the Wii U’s interface which I remember as slow, unintuitive and far less refined. They seem to have learned from experience and responded with an interface that directly combats the most obvious issues of that design and implementation.

Completely agree. The Nintendo Switch blows away the Wii U in terms of UI performance. Simplicity aside, users will put up with a lot if the system feels fast. Make it slow and every rough edge becomes a knife. Back to Mr. Deets for a note on the Switch’s UI accessibility:

They handled the problem with various display types by slightly over-scaling the whole UI. Buttons feel large on a television display, but touchable on the mobile device. Text is used minimally. The fonts are regular to medium weight, and generally legible. The interface is high contrast. There does not seem to be any accessibility settings for the type, which shows that Nintendo feels confident the UI is legible in most scenarios. The only accessibility option I have found is the ability to invert the colors or display the system in greyscale.

From a visual standpoint, again, I agree — the Switch UI looks straightforward and readable. However, being unable to remap controller buttons feels like the larger accessibility concern that should have been addressed before launch. People own gaming consoles to play games, and accessibility of the system needs to extend beyond the menus.

Tuesday, 27 June

All Ads Are Equal, but Some Ads Are More Equal Than Others

This past quarter, Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, reported revenue of over $24 billion, with nearly all of that money coming from Google search, display, and video advertising. This month, Google has announced it intends to bring native ad filtering to Chrome, the most popular browser on the planet.

Here’s Google SVP of Ads and Commerce, Sridhar Ramaswamy, in a blog post titled, “Building a better web for everyone”:

We believe online ads should be better. That’s why we joined the Coalition for Better Ads, an industry group dedicated to improving online ads. The group’s recently announced Better Ads Standards provide clear, public, data-driven guidance for how the industry can improve ads for consumers, and today I’d like to share how we plan to support it. […]

Chrome has always focused on giving you the best possible experience browsing the web. For example, it prevents pop-ups in new tabs based on the fact that they are annoying. In dialogue with the Coalition and other industry groups, we plan to have Chrome stop showing ads (including those owned or served by Google) on websites that are not compliant with the Better Ads Standards starting in early 2018.

At face value, this seems like a win for users. Many online ads are a terrible experience. By having ad filtering built-in to Chrome, my grandmother won’t need to go install a separate ad blocker just to browse the web in peace.

But this news should be met with extreme skepticism and concern, not celebration. Chrome isn’t run by the Coalition for Better Ads, it’s run by Google; a company that made over $20 billion in advertising within a single quarter. Additionally, we’re not only talking about ads. We’re talking about Google using Chrome to block web content. Ads may be a particularly annoying type of content, but they’re content all the same. By creating a precedent for filtering the web at their discretion, Google will have orchestrated a colossal change in how users view information on the internet.

Google operates the world’s #1 browser, #1 ad platform, and #1 search engine. This change to Chrome will extend Google’s influence beyond search result rankings and into every site you visit. Given Google’s market share and control in the three aforementioned areas, this news should be grounds for antitrust violation discussions.

The news regarding Chrome is only the latest in a series of steps Google’s taken to further convert the open web experience into a proprietary one.

It begins with search results. A high pagerank in Google is coveted, and being the top result can make an enormous difference in the success of your business. An entire industry exists around Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and there are countless blogs and hypotheses surrounding how to appear higher in the results particular sets of terms. However, finding a way into the top listings of a Google search doesn’t bring inherit safety with it.

In 2009, Google introduced Rich Snippets; a way of providing Google with additional data (ratings, locations, etc.) that was relevant to your page. Today, instead of asking you for additional relevant information, Google pulls this content automatically, and then displays the information in, what it calls, Featured Snippets. These snippets reside at the top of a search results page and attempt to answer questions before the user clicks on any individual result. Searching for “what temperature should turkey be cooked to?” results in a prominently displayed paragraph from Butterball’s website, without me needing to visit

Although this helps users get information faster, Featured Snippets have been known to surface incorrect or partial answers. Consequences are limited when you’re only getting incorrect instructions on how to caramelize onions, but when Featured Snippets relay blatant lies about political or world affairs, the ramifications can be damning. As voice-powered AI assistants like Google Home become more popular and our trust in their responses grow, the keeper of the underlying data wields a terrifying amount of influence.

This is all without mentioning the impact Featured Snippets has on the sites (like Butterball) themselves. Since the user doesn’t actually visit a webpage, the websites that created the information are robbed of page counts and ad impressions, sometimes to a disastrous degree.

Then there’s Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, better known as AMP.

AMP attempts to deal with the issue of bloated webpages by providing publishers with a lightweight template that Google can cache and serve up nearly instantaneously through search results. Unfortunately, what using AMP actually means is that publishers cede control of the entire reading experience, down to the URL of the content.

Yet, these tradeoffs don’t seem to deter publishers. Making your content accessible via AMP page is safe way to ensure you’re doing things the Google Way™, which ultimately puts you at a lower risk of losing search traffic.

Finally, even if a user makes it to a webpage from a Google search, there’s nothing to stop them from installing their own third-party ad blocker, and many do. Adblock Plus, one of the most popular Chrome extensions, has well over 10,000,000 user installations.

However, even for a third-party ad blocker, the amount of money on the table makes it hard to remain focused on the original goal. Last year, ironically, Adblock Plus opened its own market for selling ads, which were, naturally, whitelisted for all Adblock Plus users. Ghostery, another popular ad blocker, didn’t sell its own ads, but it did sell information about which ads you blocked back to the advertisers.

Eventually, if history is any indication, even the best of ad-managing and user privacy intentions eventually soften.

Taken without historical context, the idea of building advertisement filtering into Chrome sounds like a good idea. 1 Other browser vendors are doing similar things, too. At this year’s WWDC, Apple announced new features in Safari to prevent advertisements from tracking you around the web. Mozilla and Microsoft will inevitably pursue similar features, if they haven’t started already.

However, unlike Google, these companies don’t bring in a majority of their revenue from an advertising platform they own.

Google controls the searches, the ads, and the window through which a majority of us see the internet. I find it hard to see this ad-focused change to Chrome as anything other than a gross misuse of market share and power, which will ultimately be used to help secure and protect an exceedingly profitable advertising business. In a way we haven’t seen since Microsoft in 1998, Google’s potential, resulting competitive advantage will be nearly insurmountable to any upstart or established player.

The question is no longer if Google’s monopolistic influence over the web is growing, it’s whether anyone will care enough to stop them.

  1. It’s worth noting that every major browser currently blocks one form of web content: the pop-up. I consider this a special case though, because rogue pop-ups could easily wreck and overwhelm the entire browsing experience, leaving little recourse for the user. With ads, even the in your face interstitial ones, the content is sandboxed to a single browser tab, which a user can easily dismiss. ↩︎

Sunday, 11 June

H. Moser & Cie:

Looking like a smartwatch which is powered off or on standby, the Swiss Alp Watch Zzzz from H. Moser & Cie. cultivates this ambiguity in irreverent fashion. Behind its contemporary design lies a 100% mechanical watch. The black dial — stripped not just of any signature, but also of its indices — is strictly minimalist. On this model, there is no interface: the Swiss Alp Watch Zzzz is designed to display the time, something it does beautifully. Seemingly simple, it is anything but.

It looks almost exactly like an Apple Watch.

Friday, 9 June

Thanks for reading. Check out more in the archive.