March 7, 2018

Open Culture:

Heavy Metal was much more than sexy sci-fi mascots drawn in lurid pulpy styles. Along with its share of erotica, the “adult illustrated fantasy magazine” provided a vivid showcase for some of the most interesting artists and storytellers working in the mainstream and in various subgenres of fantasy and sci-fi.

Heavy Metal was unabashedly sexist, even misogynist, but as a kid I devoured every issue, in particular, the amazing writing. I’d never read the fantasy genre before discovering it in the pages of Heavy Metal.


Owners of Amazon Echo devices with the voice-enabled assistant Alexa have been pretty much creeped out of their damn minds recently. People are reporting that the bot sometimes spontaneously starts laughing — which is basically a bloodcurdling nightmare.

Step through the article, read the tweets. This has all the elements of a next-gen horror movie. I can’t help but wonder if there’s IoT hacking going on here, if there’s not someone having a good laugh over this.

Or ghosts. Yeah, probably ghosts.

Western Australian Museum blog:

The world’s oldest known message in a bottle has been found half-buried at a West Australian beach nearly 132 years after it was tossed overboard in the Indian Ocean, 950km from the coast.

Until now, the previous world record for the oldest message in a bottle was 108 years, four months and 18 days between jettison and discovery.

The message is dated 12 June 1886 and was jettisoned from the German sailing barque Paula as part of a long-term German oceanographic experiment to better understand global ocean currents and find faster, more efficient shipping routes.

Fascinating. This is just a bit like time travel to me.

Craig Hockenberry:

Whether you’re a developer who’s working on mobile apps, or just someone enjoying the millions of apps available for your phone, today is a very special day. It’s the ten year anniversary of the original iPhone SDK.

I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that this release changed a lot of people’s lives. I know it changed mine and had a fundamental impact on this company’s business. So let’s take a moment and look back on what happened a decade ago.

First things first, this is a great look back at a moment in time. The iPhone shipped, but there was no SDK, the secret (VERY secret) sauce that let developers build apps that sat on the shoulders of Apple’s iPhone software designers.

Craig tells the story of that first wave of folks who found ways to pry the mysteries of iPhone OS mechanics from the clues of the native apps built by Apple, dumping the classes of those apps and working out how they did what they did.

This is the work of the giants on whose shoulders future iOS developers now stand.

Craig’s writeup resonated with me very strongly. Back then, my partner, Dave Wooldridge, and I were running a publishing company called SpiderWorks, shipping eBooks for developers before eBooks had quite hit the mainstream. SpiderWorks was bought by Apress and, as part of the deal, I convinced Apress to publish a book on iPhone programming I had been contemplating.

They agreed, and Jeff LaMarche and I signed an NDA with Apple to get a pre-release version of the iPhone OS (what it was called back then) SDK.

The core of the book, Beginning iPhone Development, was a series of 20 or so apps, each of which showed off a piece of the SDK. Jeff and I brainstormed the concepts, and he did all the heavy dev lifting, with my focus on writing and re-writing to crystallize the concepts, make sure the story was clear enough for beginners to follow without too much head-scratching.

The biggest problem we ran into was the combination of an NDA (which prevented us from discussing the SDK details with ANYONE) and a rapidly changing code base. Each new SDK Apple shared with us caused all our apps to break, which meant rewriting the code and the explanatory text that showed how it all works.


Ultimately, the book was ready to go, and it shipped within days of Apple publicly releasing the SDK and officially lifting the NDA.

That experience was one of the most grueling, and thrilling, experiences of my life. I wouldn’t change it for anything.

Panic co-founder Cabel Sasser, on the Panic blog:

A few months ago, a complaint started popping up from users downloading or updating our apps: “Geez, your downloads are really slow!”

If you work in support, you probably have a reflexive reaction to a complaint like this. It’s vague. There’s a million possible factors. It’ll probably resolve itself by tomorrow. You hope. Boy do you hope.

Except… we also started noticing it ourselves when we were working from home. When we’d come in to the office, transfers were lightning fast. But at home, it was really, seriously getting hard to get any work done remotely at all.

So, maybe there was something screwy here?

This is a fascinating story, well told. In a nutshell, Panic got reports of slow downloads from a non-trivial subset of their customers, wrote a script to try to find a common link, and actually found that link. And it was Comcast.

Cabel tells the story in the video below. More detail in the linked blog post. Excellent detective work.


BlackBerry Ltd on Tuesday filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Facebook Inc and its WhatsApp and Instagram apps, arguing that they copied technology and features from BlackBerry Messenger.


“Defendants created mobile messaging applications that co-opt BlackBerry’s innovations, using a number of the innovative security, user interface, and functionality enhancing features,” Canada-based BlackBerry said in a filing with a Los Angeles federal court.

One of the patents in question covers the concept of a badge, that is, a changing number tied to an icon that reflect, for example, the current number of unread email messages.

Check out this thread from The Verge’s Nilay Patel:

This has massive potential. Potential revenue for BlackBerry, and potential disruption for a raft of companies that will find themselves in court fighting this and other patents.


March 6, 2018

The Verge:

Apple has confirmed to The Verge that it will stop taking new iTunes LP submissions as of this month. The format, which was launched in 2009, was a way for users to buy albums with bundled elements, like videos, liner notes, or bonus tracks.

While iTunes LP submissions will end this month, existing iTunes LPs will not be depreciated. Not only will these iTunes LPs continue to be available, but users will still be able to download any previous or new purchases of iTunes LPs at any time via iTunes.

Raise your hand if you’d forgotten this even existed.


Everyone knew the MoviePass deal is too good to be true — and as is so often the case these days, it turns out you’re not the customer, you’re the product. And in this case they’re not even attempting to camouflage that. Mitch Lowe, the company’s CEO, told an audience at a Hollywood event that “we know all about you.”

I didn’t imagine that the app would be tracking your location before you even left your home, and then follow you while you drive back or head out for a drink afterwards. Did you?

It sure isn’t in the company’s privacy policy, which in relation to location tracking discloses only a “single request” when selecting a theater, which will “only be used as a means to develop, improve, and personalize the service.” Which part of development requires them to track you before and after you see the movie?

When this story first broke yesterday, I didn’t post about it because I thought, “Naw. He didn’t say that. No one would be that stupid.”

Well, guess what? Looks like MoviePass is exactly that stupid.

Charlie Loyd:

This is one day’s observations from Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite, animated in a loop. It shows the western Pacific, Australia, and parts of Asia, Antarctica, and Alaska as they looked on one day in mid-2015. It covers 24 hours in 12 seconds – a time lapse factor of 7,200×.

This view of the earth is oddly fascinating. Make sure to read the About page for more detail.


When Apple released HomePod, it appeared to be more directly competing with Amazon and Google, both of which were already selling so-called “smart-speakers” designed to rival Apple in its dominance of music subscriptions; both firms had partnered with Spotify and other streaming services, and have their own content subscriptions they want to sell, too. A primary difference is that Apple is selling premium hardware, not just seeking to distribute WiFi microphones to build a new platform to speculatively sell new services in the future.

Apple’s strategy has always revolved around creating computing products people would want to buy, not simply throwing out a loss leader device with the hope to someday monetize it with content sales, services or surveillance ads.

Good article pointing out the bottom line – Apple’s plans for the HomePod go far beyond the idea of just being a “smart assistant”.

This is a fascinating story, which starts with:

My wife’s iPhone X was snatched out of her hand in Clerkenwell just over a week ago. It obviously immediately went offline and wasn’t trackable, so we put it in Lost Mode with my mobile number.

Here’s a link to the Twitter thread.

John Kraus, PetaPixel:

My name is John Kraus, and I work as a photojournalist at Cape Canaveral, covering rocket launches with up-close cameras at the various launchpads here. For yesterday’s Atlas V rocket launch, I had two cameras at Space Launch Complex 41. These cameras were sound-activated; the sound alone would kill anyone standing at the launchpad during liftoff.

I would love the opportunity to get a camera so close to a rocket launch. There’s one closeup shot of the rocket’s engine/boosters after ignition, while the rocket is moving, but still in frame, a shot that I find thrilling.

There’s also shots of what that launch did to the lens of that same camera.

Ad Week:

The 48-year-old Oscar winner has directed a new four-minute short film for Apple’s HomePod speaker featuring yet another marquee collaborator—the English musician and dancer FKA twigs. The result is a stunning piece that’s charming, surreal, emotional, playful, theatrical and utterly compelling—one of the most remarkable ads of the year so far.

This is no overstatement. Gorgeous ad. Watch it yourself. Worth every second.

Stephen Hackett, 512 Pixels:

I unplugged the Echo and put it away, leading to many questions about where Alexa went, voiced by our three year old son.

That was about three weeks ago, and in those three weeks, the entire family has gotten acquainted with HomePod and this iteration of Siri.


Obviously the HomePod blows away the Echo in terms of audio quality. I really like how the HomePod sounds, and as we already pay for Apple Music, we were good to go there.

That’s where things start to go south. In Stephen’s take, Alexa is either the same or superior to Siri in most every way. For someone used to Alexa, the switch to Siri comes across as an annoyance, especially if music quality is not a priority.

Stephen ends with:

In short, the increase in sound quality doesn’t make up for the frustration of using Siri. The HomePod is going to live in my studio; the Echo is back in its rightful place in the kitchen.

I’ve been living with HomePod for about a month and I have to agree with this take. I love my HomePod, but HomePod Siri is relatively primitive. Even when it comes to music.

I often find myself planning strategically how I will get Siri to recognize an unusual name, especially one with a lot of syllables. There have been times when I just could not get Siri to play a song even though I know the song is in the Apple Music catalog.

The lack of multiple or named timers is not a big deal to me, but I do see it as a symptom, a sign that these are early days still.

I assume that the next HomePod patch will bring new capabilities to HomePod Siri. I assume that the HomePod Siri team is paying strict attention to feedback, feverishly taking notes and planning strategy, working hard on an update that will show glimmers of a glorious new HomePod Siri future.

I sure hope that is the case.

iPhone 6s performance, before and after a battery replacement

Bennett Sorbo had an iPhone 6s with a dying battery. He ran his iPhone through some benchmarks, timing and filming the whole thing.

He then went to Apple, got a replacement battery, and ran the same tests again. The video below shows the results.

Bottom line, replacing the battery clearly speeds things up. If you jump to about 2:34 in, you’ll see that the tasks took 5:45 on the bad battery (a presumably throttled processor) and only 4:33 on the new battery.

That’s a savings of 1:12, or about 21%. Not necessarily accurate to say that your phone will be 21% faster with a new battery, but it certainly seems like a new battery would make your phone at least somewhat more nimble.

Good experiment.

Digital Trends:

Think that Google’s search algorithms are good at reading your mind? That’s nothing compared to a new artificial intelligence research project coming out of Japan, which can analyze a person’s brain scans and provide a written description of what they have been looking at.

To generate its captions, the artificial intelligence is given an fMRI brain scan image, taken while a person is looking at a picture. It then generates a written description of what they think the person was viewing. An illustration of the level of complexity it can offer is: “A dog is sitting on the floor in front of an open door” or “a group of people standing on the beach.” Both of those turn out to be absolutely accurate.

This is just a seed of a concept, the barest proof of concept. But it’s not nothing. This deep neural network can track the changes to a brain scan and draw conclusions about what that brain was viewing.

This is a small, terrifying step toward dystopia. Sci-Fi writers, start your engines.

March 5, 2018

Amazon Help:

Amazon Logistics (AMZL) may take a photo on delivery when a package is left unattended. Capturing delivery photos is intended to help customers see that their package was safely delivered and where. The photo will focus on the placement of the package. If a photo on delivery is captured, it may show up when you track a package from Your Orders.

And here’s a tweet showing the customer experience:

This has all sorts of implications. First off, is this a sign that Amazon will shift its stance on refunds when packages are stolen off the porch? Currently, Amazon sends a replacement, no questions asked. Is the value here purely for notifications, or will Amazon use this as proof and, combined with their drop the package inside your house Key program, shift responsibility of package theft to the homeowner?

But there’s also a massive data collection effort underway. Amazon is creating an army of workers who are being trained to take pictures of people’s houses. As is, this is valuable mapping data. But to me, this also hints at a huge potential next step. Amazon might use this camera-laden workforce to take other pictures. Not suggesting something nefarious, more saying they might create a powerful database that can be used for queries like:

  • Here’s a picture of a house, what’s the address?
  • How many houses have electronic doorbells installed?

Huge potential.

First off, interesting timing. On Friday, we posted a piece entitled Things Apple changed, were mocked for, then were copied industry wide, which focused purely on Apple innovation that was first mocked, then drove change in the industry.

This is a bit different, but certainly related.

Fast Company, on this year’s Mobile World Conference:

In most years, MWC is a showcase for Android at its best, with a slew of affordable smartphones, cutting-edge tech specs, and new ideas like curved screens and optical-zoom cameras. The show ultimately demonstrates how Android phones are different—and in some ways, better—than the iPhone.

This year seemed different. Instead of playing up the things that make Android handsets unique, phone makers tripped over themselves to show that they were on equal footing with Apple. In doing so, they came off as cheap imitators, unable to keep up with ideas that may not even be worth pursuing to begin with.


The worst example was the use of a cutout, or notch, for the front-facing camera on phones with edge-to-edge displays. While the iPhone X’s notch is arguably an eyesore, at least it serves a clear purpose, housing the flood illuminator, dot projector, and infrared camera that allow Apple’s Face ID authentication system to work. The notch therefore serves as a statement about the technology underneath, which might explain why Apple paid such close attention to the design of its curves.

None of this was internalized by the notch purveyors at Mobile World Congress. Asus boasted that its Zenfone 5 and 5Z have smaller notches than the “Fruit Phone X,” which is easy enough to pull off when the phones have nothing like Face ID inside. And while Asus says its phones have a higher screen-to-body ratio than the iPhone X, they also have thicker bezels at the bottom of the screen that throw off the edge-to-edge design. The same was true with several other iPhone X knockoffs that appeared at the show.


It doesn’t help that Samsung hints at having Face ID-like powers with its new AR Emoji feature, which creates an on-screen avatar from a scan of the user’s face. As my colleague Harry McCracken wrote, AR Emoji has “none of the uncanny polish and precision” of Apple’s Animoji, perhaps because the S9 doesn’t have any of iPhone X’s face-mapping sensor tech.

This is not an argument that all innovation comes from Apple. It’s more, Apple’s influence has grown to the point that the copying has accelerated and become much more widespread.

[H/T, Scott Knaster]

UPDATE: Add to all this the most prescient observation by Jean-Louis Gassée, from back in December, commenting on Samsung mocking the notch while, at the same time, calling attention to this branding attribute:

The iPhone X’s display has been mocked, notably in this Samsung commercial, for the “notch” at the top, the tiny area where all the Face ID organs (and other sensors) cut into the screen. An astute marketing person pointed to Samsung’s error in fingering the black notch: It’s a distinctive branding attribute, it tells everyone you’ve got a new iPhone X. (And let’s see what Samsung does when they deploy their own face recognition on a future device.)

Developer Peder Norrby is using an iPhone X with ARKit and face tracking to create some pretty cool special effects. Watch the video below for details. See also the trompe l’oeil Wikipedia page, which shows off the original artistic effect, which fools the eye into thinking it is seeing 3D.

Here’s a painting (Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874) that really pulls this off:

Norrby is planning on releasing his work as a free app and making his source code public. Nice.

Bleeping Computer:

The percentage of daily Chrome users who’ve loaded at least one page containing Flash content per day has gone down from around 80% in 2014 to under 8% in early 2018.

These statistics on Flash’s declining numbers were shared with the public by Parisa Tabriz, Director of Engineering at Google, during a keynote speech at Network and Distributed System Security Symposium (NDSS) held in San Diego last week.

That’s a precipitous dropoff, all in less than 4 years.

Last summer, Adobe announced the official end-of-life for Flash:

In collaboration with several of our technology partners – including Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Mozilla – Adobe is planning to end-of-life Flash. Specifically, we will stop updating and distributing the Flash Player at the end of 2020 and encourage content creators to migrate any existing Flash content to these new open formats.

So this dropoff is not a big surprise, more a sign that people are moving their content in the right direction.


In 2010, Google stunned the telecom sector by announcing the company would be jumping into the broadband business. Under the brand banner of Google Fiber, the search giant proclaimed it would be lighting a much-needed fire under the traditionally uncompetitive broadband industry, delivering ultra-fast gigabit connections across the United States.

When I first heard about Google Fiber, I was thrilled. Thrilled, mostly, with the idea of competition and what it could mean for consumers: cheaper pricing and way faster speeds.


While Google Fiber did make some impressive early headway in cities like Austin, the company ran into numerous deployment headaches. Fearing competition, incumbent ISPs like AT&T and Comcast began a concerted effort to block the company’s access to essential utility poles, even going so far as to file lawsuits against cities like Nashville that tried to expedite the process.

That sort of reaction should not have been a surprise to Google. Of course incumbent ISPs will claw and scratch to protect their territories and revenue streams.

I think the real threat to big cable, at least in the short term, will be 5G deployment, wireless technologies that do not depend on the telephone poles and buried wires/fiber. With an unlimited data plan and video streaming speeds, the real cord cutting can truly take hold.

Google Fiber might have missed their moment.

March 4, 2018

San Francisco Chronicle:

When Albert Salvador, Cupertino’s building official, visited Apple’s new spaceship building last year, he worried that people would walk into the cafeteria’s glass walls because they couldn’t distinguish them from the equally clear automatic doors.

After he brought up the issue, a contractor walked straight into the glass.

He would not be the last.

I really shouldn’t find this story as funny as I do. And it’s an entirely predictable problem.


But if I drill down past the visceral experiences of pinball, what I truly loved was the feeling of testing my skill and guile against a particular machine, the human quest for mastery that afflicts the competitive and masochistic. To make a particularly tough shot under pressure, to save a ball that appeared headed for the drain with a strategic nudge or a brilliant bit of flipper work—these were feats that would draw gasps from fellow players. During hot streaks, I would become vulnerable to the audacious notion that I could somehow beat the machine by winning extra balls and free games.

It never worked, of course. In pinball, as in life, you can never escape the inevitability of death. Sooner or later, even the most accomplished player is going to suffer the indignity of watching his or her last ball drain.

What a fun read about pinball, a game I still love to play.

March 2, 2018

Popular Mechanics:

Four decades ago, less than 5 percent of American were cremated when they died. Now that figure stands at nearly half. This is how cremation actually works, and the story of what happens to a culture when its attitude about how to memorialize the dead undergoes a revolution.

Behind the scenes stuff always fascinates me and what goes on at a crematorium definitely qualifies.

Little girl’s one-word reaction to trying wasabi is beyond adorable

Caution: This video may make you laugh uncontrollably.

Things Apple changed, were mocked for, then were copied industry wide

A few days ago, I got into a Twitter discussion about things Apple changed and were mocked for changing, yet those changes were copied and, eventually became the new normal. The original discussion was prompted by a wave of phones embracing the notch.

I was surprised by how many different things emerged from this exercise. Key to making this list was Apple making a change that is first mocked. So innovation isn’t sufficient. Here’s the original tweet. Feel free to retweet or reply to it, send me anything I’ve missed.

  • The notch. Heavily mocked, and emerging as a design element on the latest series of smartphones. First on the list because it started the discussion. The rest of these are in no particular order.
  • Getting rid of floppy drive, then optical drive.
  • Removing the headphone jack.
  • The iPhone. PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in. And Steve Ballmer’s reaction. And the funeral.
  • Sealed in iPhone/Mac battery
  • Ditching the keyboard for a capacitive touchscreen
  • Bright, colorful computer cases. Apple has constantly changed industry design aesthetics, but that Bondi blue iMac G3 was startling. It was mocked, then embraced.
  • AirPods
  • USB. I was really surprised when Steven Woolgar brought this one up. But I did some research and, yes, Apple was mocked for including it in the iMac, and that iMac is credited with legitimizing and popularizing USB. This from the USB Wikipedia page: “Apple Inc.’s iMac was the first mainstream product with USB and the iMac’s success popularized USB itself.”
  • A computer without a command line interface.
  • A closed computer, with no easy access to add cards/memory. Not my favorite change.
  • Removing Flash. Hugely mocked.
  • The iPod. No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.
  • The Apple Watch. I wrestled with this one. No question it changed the category, changed what people expect from a smart watch. But I’ve always felt the mocking came in the form of doom-and-gloom and not “this is stupid”. But a bit of reading and discussion and yeah, I’m convinced, Apple Watch belongs on this list.
  • The iPad rollout. Steve Jobs was ‘annoyed and depressed’ over initial reaction to iPad launch.

I’m certain there are many more. Feel free to add your own in the comments or reply to the original tweet.

Jeff Cable, from his blog:

As I mentioned in the last blog post, the Koreans did a really smart thing in creating tours for the media to see things other than the Olympics. One of the most popular tours, from the media I spoke to, was the DMZ tour. I did not think that I would have time for this tour, but when the USA men’s hockey team failed to make the medal round, it opened up a free day for me. I checked with the tour desk at the media village and they said that they could get me in, so off I went.

Fascinating read and, of course, pictures.

Good list. Definitely worth a look. A few I did not know.


On Wednesday, at about 12:15 pm ET, 1.35 terabits per second of traffic hit the developer platform GitHub all at once. It was the most powerful distributed denial of service attack recorded to date—and it used an increasingly popular DDoS method, no botnet required.

GitHub briefly struggled with intermittent outages as a digital system assessed the situation. Within 10 minutes it had automatically called for help from its DDoS mitigation service, Akamai Prolexic. Prolexic took over as an intermediary, routing all the traffic coming into and out of GitHub, and sent the data through its scrubbing centers to weed out and block malicious packets. After eight minutes, attackers relented and the assault dropped off.

How the attack was pulled off:

Database caching systems [memcached servers] work to speed networks and websites, but they aren’t meant to be exposed on the public internet; anyone can query them, and they’ll likewise respond to anyone. About 100,000 memcached servers, mostly owned by businesses and other institutions, currently sit exposed online with no authentication protection, meaning an attacker can access them, and send them a special command packet that the server will respond to with a much larger reply.

Interesting story. Leaves me wondering why the attackers relented. Did a human plan it to be this long? Was there some mechanism that measured the impact of the attack, it stopped when Prolexic stepped in? Was the time limit to avoid being traced?

ElevationLab blog:

When someone goes to the lengths of making counterfeits of your products, it’s at least a sign you’re doing something right. And it deserves a minute of flattery.

But when Chinese counterfeiters tool up and make copies of your product, send that inventory to Amazon, then overtake the real product’s buy box by auto-lowering the price – it’s a real problem. Customers are unknowingly buying crap versions of the product, while both Amazon and the scammers are profiting, and the reputation you’ve built goes down the toilet.

And if you’ve paid Amazon a boat load of money to advertise the product you’ve designed, built, invested in, and shipped – it’s further insult to injury. And when new counterfeit sellers keep popping up every week so you have to play whack-a-mole with Amazon, who take days to remove the sellers, it’s the beginning of the end for your small business.

Follow the headline link, take a look at the picture, a screen capture of an Amazon listing. Can you tell that this is a counterfeit? It says ElevationLab, in the form of a link, right above the product name. In this image, the product is sold by “suiningdonghanjiaju Co Ltd”. According to ElevationLab, they do not sell to wholesalers, so (the way I read it) if it’s not sold by ElevationLab, it’s counterfeit.

I went onto Amazon and looked up the product myself. Here’s a link. When I looked it up, I got a product sold by Crystal Sylvain, but with the same ElevationLab link at the top. Presumably, this is a counterfeit as well, perhaps an alt version of “suiningdonghanjiaju Co Ltd”.

How are we supposed to tell? I want to support the original designer/maker, not help rip them off and put them out of business.