Audacious Fox

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 2017

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 2017

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 2017

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 2017

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 2017

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 2017

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 2017

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 2017

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 2017

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 2017