Monday, April 23, 2018

Michael Rockwell’s Workflow Toolkit →

I discovered Michael Rockwell’s blog last week, Initial Charge (he’s also the creator of #OpenWeb). Upon perusing his site, I discovered ‘The Toolkit’, which is his list of publishing workflows for the … well … Workflow app.

I’m particularly fond of the ‘Push To Ulysses’ flow, which I even used to write this post. So meta. Here’s Michael’s description of it:

Push To Ulysses: When viewing a webpage in Safari, initiate Push to Ulysses from Workflow’s action extension. A new sheet will be opened in Ulysses with my template for publishing Linked List items. If activated with text selected on the webpage, that text will be placed in a blockquote within the body of the template.

There are quite a few more, so if you’re a web publisher, head on over and check them out.

Net Neutrality did not die today →

Katharine Trendacosta for the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

[…] Net neutrality protections didn’t end today, and you can help make sure they never do. Congress can still stop the repeal from going into effect by using the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to overturn the FCC’s action. All it takes is a simple majority vote held within 60 legislative working days of the rule being published. The Senate is only one vote short of the 51 votes necessary to stop the rule change, but there is a lot more work to be done in the House of Representatives. See where your members of Congress stand and voice your support for the CRA here.

Keep fighting the good fight, people. As I have said before: we may be losing the battle, but we will win the war.

The Subscription Age

If history has taught us anything, it’s that quite a number of folks don’t like to pay outright for digital content and services. Ever since the dawn of widespread Internet adoption in the 90s, people have always figured out ways to get content for free. From early peer-to-peer file sharing services such as Napster and Kazaa, to the more modern BitTorrent, and questionable streaming services such as Kodi. But now there’s a new age upon us. It’s an age so convenient that we’re willing to forego alternative means and pony up! Yes indeed, it’s The Subscription Age.

Read on

Friday, April 20, 2018

ZTE Exports Ban May Mean No Google Apps, a Death Sentence for Its Smartphones →

Ron Amadeo for Ars Technica:

ZTE was caught violating US sanctions by illegally shipping telecommunications equipment to Iran and North Korea. The company then made things worse by “making false statements and obstructing justice, including through preventing disclosure to and affirmatively misleading the US Government,” according to the Department of Commerce. The company reached a settlement with the government, agreeing to pay up to $1.2 billion in penalties and discipline the employees involved in the sale.

Recently, the Commerce Department found ZTE was not complying with this settlement, which triggered the next part of the agreement: a seven-year ban on US exports to ZTE. The company is no longer allowed to use US components and, possibly, software in its devices.

On the ZTE Temp Go, the first Android Go smartphone:

The $80 Tempo Go went on sale on March 30 and quickly sold out in about a day. Since then, the device has been listed as “Out of stock” on ZTE’s website. Since the devices use a Qualcomm SoC and Google software, is the Tempo Go dead after a single day on sale?

Damn. Cold blooded, but fair. Hopefully returns will be in order for Temp Go owners.

Google’s support of RCS without end-to-end encryption is irresponsible

Dieter Bohn from The Verge has an exclusive look at Google’s upcoming ‘Chat’ app and its use of Rich Communication Services (RCS). Together, they are the company’s latest attempt to solve the dumpster fire that is text messaging on Android.

RCS is a protocol backed by wireless carriers, and Google is the latest enabler. Here’s why I think it’s irresponsible.

Chat app and Rich Communication Services

Dieter:

Now, the company is doing something different. Instead of bringing a better app to the table, it’s trying to change the rules of the texting game, on a global scale. Google has been quietly corralling every major cellphone carrier on the planet into adopting technology to replace SMS. It’s going to be called “Chat,” and it’s based on a standard called the “Universal Profile for Rich Communication Services.” SMS is the default that everybody has to fall back to, and so Google’s goal is to make that default texting experience on an Android phone as good as other modern messaging apps.

Maybe the app will have more feature parity with iMessage, and that would be great for Android users. But what good is it when you factor in the following?

  1. The traffic path is no different than SMS. It goes phone > carrier > phone. We all know how much carriers love our data, and how easily it can be accessed or even subpoenaed.
  2. Also like SMS, RCS traffic is not encrypted end-to-end.

The above points are the largest problems with all of this. In a day and age where data breaches and the selling or mishandling of personal data are sadly commonplace, unencrypted traffic is simply irresponsible. Public awareness of security and privacy are more at the forefront and can only increase.

Why not replicate iMessage?

As Dieter talks about, Google also has self-imposed limitations because of Android’s openness. You see, they won’t go all in on a purely in-house messaging service (like iMessage), because every text would have to route through them. In essence, Google isn’t empowered to replicate iMessage because they share the Android ecosystem. Whereas Apple is the Apple ecosystem.

One of the major complaints about Apple is how closed off they are. Apparent here, the benefit is tighter integration within their ecosystem of apps, services, and hardware.

Dieter also thinks Apple will adopt RCS, but I don’t see them backing it for a couple reasons:

  1. Aside from lackluster encryption, it competes too directly with iMessage on a feature level.
  2. iMessage is a huge reason people don’t switch to Android.
  3. The entire protocol would have to be encrypted end-to-end and supported by all other manufacturers and their messaging apps. Sure, Apple supports (unencrypted) SMS right now, but only out of necessity and precedence.

I don’t see Apple replacing SMS or introducing RCS simply for the sake of iMessage-like features without the security.

If anything, this further cements iMessage as the texting king.

Update for clarity: my case is essentially for end-to-end encryption, so I made a couple small edits to make it clearer.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

#OpenWeb site aggregates independent Apple publishers

Last week, Michael Rockwell from Initial Charge introduced a fantastic idea called #OpenWeb. It’s an aggregate of independent technology publishers who primarily focus on Apple (including yours truly).

Michael’s words from his introductory post:

[…] But discovery is still a major problem. Why would you put the effort into buying a domain, setting up a site, and writing if no one is going to read it? And if you do manage to jump through all the hoops to start publishing, how do you find others in the community that have done so as well?

#OpenWeb let’s you find out what everyone’s talking about without having to wade through dozens of knee-jerk political reactions on Twitter or inspirational memes on Facebook. Those things have their place, but I think we need somewhere to go for more thoughtful commentary […].

I think this is a great idea. I started blogging about a year ago, and as Michael says, discovery is a hard problem for an independent writer. Head over to #OpenWeb and discover other great writers and opinions, as I have already.

Thanks, Michael!

Siri isn’t dumb, she’s less consistent

Everyone loves to hate on Siri. The common trope equates to her being dumb or not up to par with the other voice assistants (largely being Alexa and Google Voice Assistant). I believe this perception largely comes from Siri’s greatest opportunity for improvement: general knowledge. 1

Table Stakes

Let’s first address the table stakes among digital assistants — weather, sports, news, smart home functions, etc. I feel they all do these jobs equally well, with little differences.

For example: let’s say my living room Lurton Caséta dimmer is at 5%, but I want to raise it to 100%. If I tell Alexa to “turn on the living room lights”, Alexa is smart enough to interpret my intent as a human would and just raise the lights. A human might have more snark at first. Siri, on the other hand, does not understand my intent. If I issue the same command to her, she does nothing because the lights are already on. As if a child, she might as well be saying “the lights are already on, duh”. I must specifically ask Siri to “set the lights to 100%” or some variation.

It’s a little annoyance, and although I prefer Alexa’s handling of the situation, there is still feature parity here.

General Knowledge

By contrast, I feel this is the main area in which Siri lacks consistent feature parity with the others. Even in my own circle of friends and family, the questions that fail the most fall into this category. These are usually questions I would never ask Siri myself, since I know she can’t answer them accurately (if at all). Here are just a few examples, comparing Siri and Alexa.

Are tomatoes a fruit?

  • Siri: Wolfram Alpha results with no direct answer to the question.
  • Alexa: “Yes, a tomato is a fruit.”

What is the largest freshwater lake in the world?

  • Siri: “Here’s what I found on the web.”
  • Alexa: “The largest freshwater lake by area is Lake Superior, at 31,795.5 square miles.”

What time is Brooklyn Nine-Nine on?

  • Siri: “Sorry, I couldn’t find anything called ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ playing nearby.”
  • Alexa: “Season five of Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs on Fox Tuesdays at 9:30pm Eastern and 8:30pm Central.”

Now, I will say that Siri answered most of my general knowledge questions correctly (about 70% of them) as I was looking for the above examples. However, every time Siri doesn’t answer correctly or in an unexpected way, trust in the service takes another hit.

Siri’s negative perception will continue to increase until Apple addresses this area and others (hopefully in some capacity at this year’s WWDC). This isn’t Siri’s only problem, but I think it’s the biggest one. Severely reducing dumps to web searches (like above) is another one. As Siri and voice input are increasingly positioned at the forefront of new computing methods, the last thing Apple needs is to be thought of as behind. Does this all make Siri dumb? No. It makes her less consistent.


  1. General Knowledge. /salute 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Apple explains how Personalized Hey Siri works →

Apple’s latest entry into their Machine Learning Journal details how they personalized the Hey Siri trigger phrase for engaging the personal assistant. Here are a few interesting tidbits.

[…] Unintended activations occur in three scenarios – 1) when the primary user says a similar phrase, 2) when other users say “Hey Siri,” and 3) when other users say a similar phrase. The last one is the most annoying false activation of all. In an effort to reduce such False Accepts (FA), our work aims to personalize each device such that it (for the most part) only wakes up when the primary user says “Hey Siri.” […]

I love the candidness of the writers here. I can also relate to the primary scenario. Let’s just say I’ve learned how often I say the phrase “Are you serious?”, because about 75% of the time I do, Siri thinks I’m trying to activate her. It’s fairly annoying on multiple levels.

On Siri enrollment and learning:

[…] During explicit enrollment, a user is asked to say the target trigger phrase a few times, and the on-device speaker recognition system trains a PHS speaker profile from these utterances. This ensures that every user has a faithfully-trained PHS profile before he or she begins using the “Hey Siri” feature; thus immediately reducing IA rates. However, the recordings typically obtained during the explicit enrollment often contain very little environmental variability. […]

And:

This brings to bear the notion of implicit enrollment, in which a speaker profile is created over a period of time using the utterances spoken by the primary user. Because these recordings are made in real-world situations, they have the potential to improve the robustness of our speaker profile. The danger, however, lies in the handling of imposter accepts and false alarms; if enough of these get included early on, the resulting profile will be corrupted and not faithfully represent the primary users’ voice. The device might begin to falsely reject the primary user’s voice or falsely accept other imposters’ voices (or both!) and the feature will become useless.

Heh. Maybe this explains my “Are you serious?” problem.

They go on to explain improving speaker recognition, model training, and more. As with all of Apple’s Machine Learning Journal entries, this one is very technical in content, but these peeks behind the curtain are highly interesting to say the least.

One thing I didn’t see note of was how microphone quality and quantity improves recognition. For instance, Hey Siri works spookily-well on HomePod, with its seven microphones. However, I assume they aren’t using Personalized Hey Siri on HomePod, since it’s a communal device with multiple users, so the success rate may be implicitly higher already. Either way, I wish my iPhone would hear me just as well.

Nikola Tesla predicted the smartphone in 1926 →

I saw this through Daring Fireball and just had to share. Here’s the relevant bit of a Tesla interview with Collier’s magazine in 1926:

When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

We shall be able to witness and hear events — the inauguration of a President, the playing of a world series game, the havoc of an earthquake or the terror of a battle — just as though we were present.

When the wireless transmission of power is made commercial, transport and transmission will be revolutionized. Already motion pictures have been transmitted by wireless over a short distance. Later the distance will be illimitable, and by later I mean only a few years hence. Pictures are transmitted over wires — they were telegraphed successfully through the point system thirty years ago. When wireless transmission of power becomes general, these methods will be as crude as is the steam locomotive compared with the electric train.

The way in which visionaries like Tesla saw the future is just remarkable. Really makes you wonder which predictions made today will be accurate fifty or more years from now.

Amazon warehouse workers pee in bottles, are punished for being sick →

Shona Ghosh for Business Insider:

Rushed fulfilment workers, who run around Amazon’s warehouses “picking” products for delivery, have a “toilet bottle” system in place because the toilet is too far away, according to author James Bloodworth, who went undercover at a warehouse in Staffordshire, UK, for a book on low wages in Britain.

 Bloodworth told The Sun: “For those of us who worked on the top floor, the closest toilets were down four flights of stairs. People just peed in bottles because they lived in fear of being ­disciplined over ‘idle time’ and ­losing their jobs just because they needed the loo.”

And:

A survey of Amazon workers, released on Monday, found almost three-quarters of fulfilment centre staff are afraid of using the toilet in case they miss their targets.

On how workers are punished for being sick:

Another employee said she was ill while pregnant, and was still handed warning points.

And yet another said: “I turned up for my shift even though I felt like shit, managed 2 hours then I just could not do anymore. Told my supervisor and was signed off sick, I had a gastric bug (sickness and diarrhoea, very bad) saw my doc. Got a sick note with an explanation, but still got a strike.”

This is just despicable and unsanitary. How does Amazon attract talent with their increasingly bad working conditions?