Audacious Fox

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 butterball.com.

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

In iOS 10, there are three options a user can select from when prompted for location access:

  • Only While Using the App
  • Always Allow
  • Don’t Allow

Most apps should only ever need the first option, and even for ride sharing or locally aware services, some users would prefer to only reveal their location at explicit times, not constantly.

Unfortunately, users currently have little choice in the matter, as any app can remove the “Only While Using the App” option from the location prompt. This essentially forces users to either grant full, 247 location access or render the app useless.

Thankfully, the current developer build of iOS 11 appears to make two key changes in this area. First, the “Only While Using the App” option is present for all location permission prompts, even if the app had previously disabled it. Second, when an app accesses your location from the background, a system-wide banner, like when you’re on a phone call, will be displayed. This banner contains the name of the app that’s using your location, and is far less subtle than the current status bar GPS icon.

Both of these changes are subject to, well, change before iOS 11 releases this Fall, but I don’t think they will, at least not drastically. Apple has repeatedly positioned themselves as staunch advocates for user privacy, whether it’s end-to-end encryption for iMessage or their approach to training photo recognition software. 1

Increasingly, it feels like a serious commitment to my privacy is included in the premium I pay for Apple products. iPhones and MacBooks can be more expensive than the competition, but I don’t trust Google or Microsoft the way I do Apple. Maybe that’s bias, but in a world of AI and machine learning, where more data is better and companies happily feed your information to their algorithms, Apple appears to be going extremely out of its way to avoid compromising my identity. And that’s something I don’t mind paying a little extra for.


  1. “Well, turns out, if you want to get pictures of mountains, you don’t need to get it out of people’s personal photo libraries.” — Craig Federighi, SVP of Software Engineering, during last year’s episode of The Talk Show Live. ↩︎

Thursday, 8 June

Nick Heer, writing about the lack of an experimental, boutique market for smartphones and how Andy Rubin’s new company, Essential, and their Essential Phone might be the first to carve out a niche:

So why isn’t there a boutique manufacturer of smartphones, like there is in many other industries? Why isn’t there a company doing interesting things with the basic smartphone formula of a screen, a battery, and a cellular radio? Is there room for one in the marketplace? […]

Perhaps my expectations are too high here. Perhaps it isn’t possible to have an experimental smartphone company. Cars and fashion are symbols of power, money, prestige, and sex appeal; cameras — even digital ones — are tactile and ultimately personal objects that capture memories. But smartphones have, so far, been utilitarian objects above all else. Is it possible for a consumer tech product to rise to the level of high fashion?

I think it’s possible, but not probable. Mr. Heer’s automobile metaphor holds up well, but I think he misses pointing out an important factor: smartphones have incredibly high turnover compared to cars. Someone could own an Alfa Romeo Sedan for 10 years, but only keep their iPhone for 12-18 months. When looking at boutique markets, it’s not only “how interesting can we make the product”, but also “how often will the consumer be deciding between us and something more normal?” 1

Needing to annually, if not continually, reaffirm the uniqueness of your device puts substantial stress on companies like Essential to either make something with more mass appeal, drop prices, or slowly die. That’s not to say a market for experimental smartphones can’t exist, but there’s certainly no precedent for one or a clear path to success. Essential Phone might flourish its first year — there’s a lot of attention on Andy Rubin’s first post-Android project — but will it do well enough to survive, and meet demand, in the years that follow?


  1. As for the comparison to cameras, I think it’s important to note that normal people might own and use multiple cameras, but these same people aren’t buying and using two or three smartphones. Well, unless they’re Dave Morin. ↩︎

Sunday, 4 June

AirPods

These are my first Bluetooth headphones. There are things I like about AirPods that are probably true for any wireless headphones. That said, I think AirPods distinguish themselves in two important ways: a convenient and slim charging case for when you’re on-the-go, and the best wireless pairing process I’ve ever experienced, hands-down, bar none.

Case & Charging

The case is made of smooth, white plastic, reminiscent of the plastic MacBooks or Magic Mouse. My case is starting to accumulate some scratches, but it’s held up remarkably well, considering I routinely toss it in my bag with keys and spare change. The hinge is sturdy, and once closed, the case has a low profile that’s easy to slide into your jean or coat pockets. Opening the lid reveals the AirPods and a single, pinhole-sized LED, which communicates the current charge level or pairing status. Magnets keep each AirPod securely in place and help ensure the lid stays closed.

The case also helps prevent misplacing AirPods. When I take the AirPods out of my ears, they always go straight back into the case. Apple charges $69 for lost AirPods (another $69 if you lose the case, too), and you have to supply proof of your original purchase. Cheaper than buying new, but an avoidable outcome.

Apple claims the case holds more than 24 hours of battery life, with each pod capable of running for 5 hours on its own. I’ve found that to be true, if not understated. Additionally, charging AirPods for 15 minutes equals 3 hours of battery life, which proves useful, as you can charge up in the same amount of time it takes to get ready for a run or a trip to the store. Since I’m not using my AirPods every minute of the day, I’ve found I can easily make it 3 to 5 days without needing to charge the case.

The lasts-longer-than-a-day metric is important, because it means you simply don’t think about running out of battery. AirPods last a few days between charges, which means I’m highly likely to passively plug them in during that time, which means I’m almost never caught with dead AirPods.

Unless we have some breakthrough in lithium-ion battery capacity, gadget power anxiety will be solved one of two ways: 1.) increasingly smart power management, so most devices for most people can last at least 24 hours; and 2.) charging technology that is either ubiquitous or fast. For ubiquity, we’re already seeing conductive charging stations make their way into furniture, and there’s some motion in the truly wireless charging front. For fast charging, which seems more realistically attainable, look at what Apple’s doing with AirPods, Samsung with the Galaxy line, or Tesla with their Superchargers. If you can get a full, multi-day charge in minutes, no one cares what the actual battery capacity is.

Wireless

I’ve run over 60 miles with my AirPods, and I haven’t had one problem with them falling out or jostling loose. For my ears, the fit is snug and similar to the EarPods before them. If you find EarPods comfortable, there’s little change here.

Each AirPod comes with a speaker and a mic. Having individual microphones is useful, because you can choose to use one AirPod at a time without compromising on functionally. Not true with EarPods. If you didn’t keep the right-side EarPod in, the mic and control buttons would dangle.

Wires may not be long for this world, but I liked the way a string strung between two music lovers would literally and visibly connect the two. AirPods eschew this connected metaphor, but the benefits of wireless audio simply outweigh whatever nostalgia I have.

Going wireless, in combination with each AirPod having its own microphone, opens up some new use cases I hadn’t thought of. My wife and I now have a habit of sharing AirPods during phone calls, and we particularly enjoy wandering around the grocery store, listening to the same song or podcast. At times, it can feel somewhat magical.

However, the real magic comes when you first connect AirPods to your iPhone. Whatever experiences you have in setting up Bluetooth devices, discard them immediately. The AirPods pairing process is so fast and painless that I had the same “are you shitting me” reaction from when my home upgraded dialup to broadband. It’s that good.

To pair AirPods to an iOS device:

  1. Open the AirPods case.
  2. Tap “Connect” on your iOS device.

Two seconds later — seriously — you’re done. There is no better example or encapsulation of Apple’s “it just works” philosophy than the pairing process for AirPods. Every other Bluetooth setup now looks archaic.

The reason pairing is so smooth relies entirely on a new wireless chip Apple’s engineered: the W1. Debuting in AirPods, the W1 makes Bluetooth user-friendly and fast. Aside from helping pair devices, the W1 chip also brings some smart capability to AirPods. For example, when you’re listening to music and remove one AirPod, the music pauses; when you put the AirPod back in, music resumes. These features won’t be limited to AirPods, either. Remember that tiny headphone maker Apple purchased in 2014? It’s a safe bet we’ll see the W1 work its way to other wireless devices in the coming years.

Siri & Playback

Wireless freedom is not without annoyances. Wires serve as a convenient place to put physical buttons for playback and volume, and you will absolutely miss those physical controls. AirPods have a small amount of configurability; you can set the double-tap actuation to trigger Siri, toggle playback, or disable the controls entirely. To compensate for this lack of buttons or controls, Apple excitedly directs you to control audio playback and volume with Siri.

Needing to talk to Siri as the recommended way of controlling audio playback feels like an antithesis to the reason I’m using headphones in the first place. When I have my AirPods in, I’m most likely in a quiet place with other people (library, open office) or in a loud place with lots of ambient noise (grocery store, coffee shop). In either situation, needing to say, “turn up the volume” or “go to the next track” aloud is either rude or woefully inconsistent.

Finally, although AirPods remain secure and comfortable while running, here is yet another situation where activating Siri proves problematic. I consider myself in good health, but even with lightly belabored breathing, getting Siri to register my commands mid-run is arduous or impossible.

For me, I quickly gave up on using Siri for controlling audio playback, instead opting for my iPhone’s volume rockers and onscreen UI. Pressing the volume rocker on an iPhone adjusts the current volume by 1, out of 16 possible grades. Saying “turn it up” to Siri is the equivalent to two clicks of the volume rocker, which means there are 8 volume levels Siri can set. Your ears are different than mine, but I almost always change the volume up or down by about 4 rocker presses, which means I’m activating Siri twice to accomplish the same thing.

This is more a critique of Siri than AirPods, but when Apple so tightly integrates the two, the performance or shortcomings of one implicates the other. In this case, in five months of owning AirPods, I’ve used Siri to control music playback or alter volume fewer than 10 times.

Closing

My two biggest concerns with purchasing wireless headphones were (a) dealing with batteries in yet another device and (b) working around the the inconsistencies of Bluetooth. With the AirPods’ case and W1 chip, Apple has delivered elegant solutions to both issues, in a way that makes AirPods feel like the most Apple-y device they’ve built in quite a while.

After five months of near daily usage, AirPods are still a joy to use, and I have no desire to look elsewhere.

Saturday, 3 June

Matthew Zeitlin, Buzzfeed:

For years, one of the best/worst kept secrets in media circles was a login that unlocked the Wall Street Journal’s formidable paywall. Username: media. Password: media. […]

For an industry filled with insatiable loudmouths and gossips, media-media was kept impressively quiet, shared among reporters, but not so widely that it became public knowledge. Reporters outside of the Journal’s Midtown headquarters were so tight-lipped that many WSJ reporters had no idea that media-media even existed.

Sunday, 28 May

Zach Whittaker, ZDNet, reporting on a recent letter by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), relayed to Senate staffers by the Sergeant at Arms. From the letter itself:

I [Senator Wyden] have long argued that strong, backdoor-free encryption is an important cybersecurity technology that the government should be embracing, not seeking to regulate or outlaw. My own Senate website, which has used HTTPS by default since 2015, was the first Senate website to do so. With the transition to default HTTPS for all of the other Senate websites and the recent announcement by your office that end-to-end encrypted messaging app Signal is approved for Senate use, I am happy to see that you too recognize the important defensive cybersecurity role that encryption can play.

The news comes only a week after the United States Senate announced it had switched all sites over to HTTPS. No small feat, considering the senate.gov domain hosts hundreds of senator’s domains and committee sites.

Tuesday, 16 May

Apple PR:

To mitigate Dubai’s climate, Foster + Partners designed eighteen 37.5-foot-high motorized “Solar Wings” that respond to the ever-changing environmental conditions. When the sun is at its hottest they cool the store, and in the evenings they open to welcome everyone to the public terrace. Inspired by the the traditional Arabic Mashrabiya, each “Solar Wing” is locally fabricated from 340 carbon fiber reinforced polymer rods, and at 180 feet wide, the 18 panels make up one of the world’s largest kinetic art installations.

To see the “Solar Wings” in action, check out the gif, about halfway down the press release. Absolutely mesmerizing to watch.

Thursday, 27 April

Mike Murphy, Quartz:

The online retailer is pitching the Echo Look as a fashion-forward device, meant to help you figure out what from your wardrobe suits you best every day. The device’s app ships with software called “Style Check,” which Amazon describes as “a new service that combines machine learning algorithms with advice from fashion specialists,” that lets users compare two photos taken through the Look to decide which outfit is better.

Amazon wasn’t immediately available to confirm what sort of data it was training to build this software, and whether it would apply the same fashion sense for a customer in New York as it would in London or Hong Kong. It also didn’t respond to comment on who exactly designed the product, and whether it was something that was specifically designed for women (its advertising almost entirely comprises women), by women.

Even though Amazon doesn’t suggest specific rooms for Echo Look to reside in, it’s obviously a device intended for the bedroom, unless you want to be running out to your kitchen with each outfit change. To that end, an Echo with a “hands-free” camera, sitting in my bedroom 247 sounds horrifying creepy.

Additionally, sending Amazon full-length photos of yourself might reveal more personal information than you think. As pointed out on Twitter by Zeynep Tufekci, an associate sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, “With this data, Amazon won’t be able to just sell you clothes or judge you. It could analyze if you’re depressed or pregnant and much else.” A picture is worth a thousand words, they say.

So, if this isn’t targeted at the privacy conscious (or anyone who owns a mirror), who’s Echo Look for? The vain and indecisive? At first glance, I thought Echo Look seemed far more akin to the self-checkout stations that have permeated our grocery stores (imagine some form of Amazon’s “Style Check” in a department store’s changing rooms), but Amazon doesn’t augment brick-and-motar stores, it replaces them. With that in mind, I’m leaning towards a simpler explanation: Echo Look is Amazon’s latest experiment to see what sticks when it comes to in-home AI.

It was only a matter of time before the Echo gained a camera. Human personal assistants don’t do their jobs blindfolded. Still, Echo Look feels like a product that goes a step too far, too quickly, and without a clear picture of who its audience is.

Wednesday, 26 April

Frank Bruni, in an op-ed for The New York Times:

Instead of saying “people who,” Donald Trump said “people that.” Marco Rubio followed suit. Even Jeb Bush, putatively the brainy one, was “that”-ing when he should have been “who”-ing, so I was cringing when I should have been oohing.

It’s always a dangerous thing when politicians get near the English language: Run for the exits and cover the children’s ears. But this bit of wreckage particularly bothered me. This was who, a pronoun that acknowledges our humanity, our personhood, separating us from the flotsam and jetsam out there. We’re supposed to refer to “the trash that” we took out or “the table that” we discovered at a flea market. We’re not supposed to refer to “people that call my office” (Rubio) or “people that come with a legal visa and overstay” (Bush).

Tuesday, 25 April

Unroll.me, Unravelled

Yesterday, Mike Isaac of The New York Times wrote a profile on Uber C.E.O. Travis Kalanick and his drive to turn Uber into a winning machine, regardless the cost. It’s a fascinating piece, and you should make time to read it.

But in Mr. Isaac’s digging, he unearthed some unsettling information about another company, Unroll.me. Owned by Slice Intelligence, Unroll.me labels itself as a way to “clean up your inbox”, by intercepting and archiving your email, and then sending you a simple summary of all your receipts and newsletters. As reported by Mr. Isaac’s, however, Unroll.me was selling aggregated, “anonymized” email message data to whoever wanted to buy; in this case, Uber. Mr. Isaac:

Uber devoted teams to so-called competitive intelligence, purchasing data from an analytics service called Slice Intelligence. Using an email digest service it owns named Unroll.me, Slice collected its customers’ emailed Lyft receipts from their inboxes and sold the anonymized data to Uber. Uber used the data as a proxy for the health of Lyft’s business. (Lyft, too, operates a competitive intelligence team.)

Slice confirmed that it sells anonymized data (meaning that customers’ names are not attached) based on ride receipts from Uber and Lyft, but declined to disclose who buys the information.

Following this story, Unroll.me’s CEO and founder Jojo Hedaya wrote the following apology:

Our users are the heart of our company and service. So it was heartbreaking to see that some of our users were upset to learn about how we monetize our free service. 

And while we try our best to be open about our business model, recent customer feedback tells me we weren’t explicit enough. 

Sure we have a Terms of Service Agreement and a plain-English Privacy Policy that our users agree they have read and understand before they even sign up, but the reality is most of us - myself included - don’t take the time to thoroughly review them.

This apology blog post has made its way around the internet, but I found most takes or tweets to be surprisingly harsh. Sidestepping the tone deaf “it was heartbreaking” and Mr. Hedaya’s bizarre admission of not thoroughly reviewing his own company’s documents, we’re left with an unassailable fact: There is an Unroll.me privacy policy, and every Unroll.me user agreed to it. And in that policy, which at nearly 2,500 words is not short yet reasonably formatted and readable, right under “Our Collection and Use of Non-Personal Information”, is the money quote:

We also collect non-personal information − data in a form that does not permit direct association with any specific individual. We may collect, use, transfer, sell, and disclose non-personal information for any purpose.

Plain English to me.

That said, we need to separate and articulate the different issues at play here, which I see boiling down to three different arguments:

  1. Uber has been conducting a masterclass in how to alienate the average, decent person. From their toxic culture — full of sexism and bullying — to the Uber executives’ visit to a Seoul “escort bar”, the company, led by a flame-throwing C.E.O., is both massively valuable and morally bankrupt. Uber employees looking for new jobs have to defend themselves to recruiters, and in the current climate, anything associated with Uber is prequalified for scrutiny.
  2. Slice’s selling of aggregated and “anonymized” email data is a scummy thing to do to its users. Additionally, the premise that stripping out a user’s name ensures reasonable anonymity is ridiculous. Remember, this data isn’t being combed through by humans, it’s being dumped into machines that are designed to pick out patterns. Word usage, locale, time of day. With enough data and context, your emails will point to you, even if they don’t explicitly include your name. Unroll.me should have been more upfront about how they used their users’ data.
  3. We forget that using free online services almost guarantees our information is being sold to help pay the bills. Email, social networks, news sites. They all sell the same thing, often to advertisers: us. We need to be more conscientious about what companies we let use our data.

When you combine #1 with #2, the revelation that Slice was selling user data to Uber created a perfect storm. The internet jumped, and the narrative was largely about how despicable Unroll.me’s behavior was. However, when you add in #3, the following two points have to be acknowledged:

  1. For a large number of free online services, the practice of selling user data to advertisers — or whoever is willing to pay — is common practice. I don’t like it, nor do I support it as a route to keep the lights on (I’d rather pay a few dollars a month), but we can’t treat Slice as some exception to the norm.
  2. Unroll.me was unlucky and hit doubly hard because they appeared in an article with Uber. Unroll.me wasn’t caught red-handed, common sense and the privacy policy clearly outline the possibility of selling user data, but the fact the data went to Uber made things worse.

Mr. Isaac’s story highlighted an unfortunate side effect of free online services. If that makes you uncomfortable, go delete Unroll.me’s access to your email. In fact, now’s a great time to go review any apps that you’ve granted access to your email or social accounts.1

But Slice’s participation in an industry practice, despite their business dealing with Uber, doesn’t grant us clemency in this story. Ultimately, the blame for our data being sold is on us. We agreed to Unroll.me’s privacy policy. We’ve agreed to terms and conditions without reading a single word. Many of us know, deep down, how these free sites and services make a living, but when we choose to care is often arbitrary.

There’s this classic scene in “Casablanca”, where nightclub and gambling den owner Rick Blaine gets confronted by corrupt police officer Captain Louis Renault, who has come to shut down Blaine’s operation:

Blaine: How can you close me up? On what grounds?

Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!

A croupier hands Renault a pile of money.

Croupier: Your winnings, sir.

Captain Renault: Oh, thank you very much.

We’re allowed to be upset we didn’t read Unroll.me’s privacy policy or that it wasn’t presented more visibly; we can even revoke Unroll.me’s access to our email and never use any of their parent company’s services in the future; but after years of using free email, free social networks, and free news sites where our data is routinely sold to the highest bidder, how are we shocked?


  1. MyPermissions.org has direct links to the “review” pages for many popular services. (You don’t need to install anything, just click the icon of the service you want to go review.) ↩︎

Monday, 24 April

Nintendo: 906,000 Nintendo Switch consoles and over 1.3 million copies of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (925,000 for Nintendo Switch + 460,000 for Wii U) were sold in the U.S. this March. According to Nintendo, this makes the Nintendo Switch and Breath of the Wild two of the fastest selling systems and games of all time.

Impressive numbers, and all during a month not traditionally known for console launches.

Sunday, 23 April

Natt Garun, the Verge:

Let’s take a step back: this is not a Facebook guide to how to be a journalist. It’s the Facebook guide to how to use Facebook. There were no questions about journalistic integrity, such as verifying your sources, fact-checking, or how to develop your interview skills. Instead, the final assessment questions ranged from technical (“Why might a journalist tag the location of a Facebook Live video broadcast?”) to random trivia about whether you can name that Facebook feature (“Which of these tools lets journalists show their audience a scene from all angles?”).

I can see the value of teaching journalists how to use Facebook. 62% of adults get their news from social media, and Facebook owns a large slice of that pie. The press should understand the more nuanced parts of such a powerful platform.

That said, this “journalism certification” is a mislabled joke of a program. Journalists don’t need to get more serious about Facebook, Facebook needs to get more serious about journalism.

Thursday, 20 April

Before You Ship

These are the questions our designers ask one another before any user-facing design goes live. Think of this as a checklist, like the ones they use at NASA before a takeoff. It’s a simple tool that helps ensure all designs meet the same requirements, and it’s easily understood by new and seasoned designers.

Checklist

Why are you building this? What’s the value for the customer? How does this benefit our company? Have we tried this before? What do things look like a year after shipping? Be a reporter: dig for context, ask a lot of questions, see the whole board.

Have you asked for feedback? Show work early and often. Have another teammate look at your design. Reviews and critiques generate an abundance of feedback, but there’s always something you might not have noticed or considered. Everyone has to invite feedback, but we trust you to make the final decision.

Is your design accessible? Can someone navigate the interface with only a keyboard? How’s the contrast between text and background colors? Not everyone has a Retina display or 2020 vision. Think text size, colors, layout, and metadata, as outlined by the WCAG. Read our internal accessibility guide, and address all critical-level concerns.

Has anyone tried using this thing? Watch someone use your design. Document or record what they do. This doesn’t need to be formal usability test — in-house folks are users too — but try to have someone who’s not a designer use what you’ve made.

How will you know it worked? What data needs tracked in order to validate your design? How do you define and measure success? Try to come up with a few concrete, specific metrics — qualitative or quantitive — that you can use to inform future changes.

Tuesday, 18 April

Researches Grant Storey, Dillon Reisman, Arvind Narayanan, and Jonathan Mayer, in a draft of an upcoming paper titled “The Future of Ad Blocking: An Analytical Framework and New Techniques” (PDF):

Thus we propose perceptual ad blocking which works radically differently from current ad blockers. It deliberately ignores useful information in markup and limits itself to visually salient information, mimicking how a human user would recognize ads. We use lightweight computer vision techniques to implement such a tool and show that it defeats attempts to obfuscate the presence of ads.

Jason Koebler, Vice:

The Federal Trade Commission regulations require advertisements to be clearly labeled so that a human can recognize them, which has created a built-in advantage for consumers and, now, ad blockers. The team used several computer vision techniques to detect ads the same way that a human would, which they call “perceptual ad blocking.” Because advertisers must comply with these regulations, the authors imagine an “end game” in which consumers—and ad blockers—ultimately win.

Because an ad is required to look like an ad, identification via computer vision or optical character recognition seems like a surefire way of blocking them indefinitely. A proof of concept Chrome extension is available, and it worked pretty well in my tests. The extension doesn’t actually block ads, but overlays a watermark, proving its capability.

The ad-blocking arms race isn’t going to last forever. There will be a winner, and it will be the users. This is unfortunate, because advertising isn’t the problem; rather, the past decade of overly aggressive, intrusive data collecting, and resource hogging online ads have doomed this particular format. If publishers and advertisers aren’t attempting to completely rethink how online ads work, they’re either crazy or delusional.

Tuesday, 18 April

Announced at last weekend’s American Copy Editors Society meeting, the Associated Press now recommends referring to competitive video games as ‘esports’, not ‘eSports’ or ‘e-sports’.

I consider the AP Stylebook one of the more liberal style guide, but giving esports the same treatment as email, both lowercased and hyphen-less, is indicative of a significant trend in public perception and usage. According to the AP, esports are now mainstream.

(I count 12 colleges that offer varsity esports programs (with a surprisingly strong showing from my home state), and in 2014, video game ‘League of Legends’ drew 27 million viewers for its final match, which was more than that year’s final games of the World Series (23.5 million) or NBA Finals (18 million).)

Thursday, 30 March

Bohemian Coding’s Sketch is a powerful design tool for MacOS, and a number of folks at my company, including me, use it daily. In the next version (43), Sketch will be switching to a JSON-based file format, which, among other things, means that Sketch files will become openly scriptable. Jasim A. Basheer captures how exciting this is:

Can you imagine what kind of new things will now be possible? One word: design automation (okay, two words!). You want Artboards that showcase a font and its variations, like a Google Fonts page? There’s probably going to be a script to generate that file. There will be websites from which you can download freshly brewed Sketch files based on what you ask — say an image gallery, or a landing page, or a signup form. You’ll be able to pick your brand colors, choose a theme, randomize it, and voila! you have a Sketch design to start playing with. Someone could even build a Sketch equivalent that runs on the browser. The possibilities are many!

Additionally, aside from automation and cross-platform interoperability, switching to a JSON-based file format should make file versioning — tracking changes to a document over time — much simpler. Currently, if you have a Sketch file in version control, any changes you make are tracked as a single, opaque modification. With the new file format, you should be able to see not only that the document changed, but also what parts of the design were modified.

Using a JSON-based file format will let designers leverage the power and collaboration of version control, without sacrificing the context of their changes.

Tuesday, 14 March