Running iOS 12 on an actual iPhone 6

Image result for treacleMy iPhone 6 (Plus) is coming on four years old, and I’m eyeing that coral-coloured  X🅁  with real interest as October 19 approaches. But, at the same time, I’ve brazenly updated my 4-year old Mac to Mojave and the 6 Plus to iOS 12, on the promise that this was a “performance” update designed to give older hardware a new lease of life. iOS 12 was backwards-compatible to the 5S, so I’m one generation ahead on that.

I doubt that many of the tech journalists writing about this stuff are really still using the 6 generation phone as their everyday phone. So what is it really like in practice?

More performance?

Not noticeably. I mean, games like Pocket Run Pool and Flip Flop Solitaire still take ages to load. Overcast, my podcast app of choice, is still a bit laggy, and (most damningly), the keyboard when you’re typing in the Safari address bar works e   x    t    r    e   m    e   l     y slowly, making the letters you type appear several seconds after you type them.

I’m hoping today’s 12.1 update will address that particular issue, but the best I can say about iOS 12 is that my phone is more or less the same after updating as it was before. Give or take the keyboard lag. As for the much vaunted Shortcuts, I still can’t see much use for it, and when I do try a pre-programmed Shortcut recipe, it works so unbelievably slowly that I’d have been better off doing it manually. I mean, invoking the play-a-particular-Playlist takes about 20 seconds to work, when it works.

So it is time for a new phone. The camera always seems to have Vaseline smeared on the lens, and it has been a considerable time since I was able to hear a phone call on it without invoking the speaker or plugging in a set of earbuds.

Still, I think four years is pretty good. The original battery is still at 85% of its original capacity, and it still looks okay. My heart is set on the orange X🅁, so whatever happens, if supply is constrained, I’ll be waiting.

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The Great Flickr Shitr

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The first picture I uploaded to Flickr, taken in July 2004

Flickr was one of the earliest social networks, starting in February 2004, and, among other things, pioneered the use of the hashtag, which later became a key part of the Twitter experience. It was a place where you could upload photos/descriptions, connect with other users, join groups, make comments, and create themed collections of your own photos.

I joined in July 2004, and it really felt like a small and friendly community in those days. Of course, it was hard to see how they would ever make money.

They were acquired by Yahoo in 2005, and the long downhill descent began. There are three things that Yahoo did that are variously upsetting and annoying.

The first was that they neglected it, allowing its performance to get worse, and were particularly slow to respond to the smartphone revolution. Even as the iPhone became the most ubiquitous camera used by Flickr photographers, the Flickr app experience was kludgy. As Instagram demonstrated how simple a photo sharing social network could be, Flickr’s was complicated and slow. Even today, if someone shares a photo from Flickr to Twitter, it loads extremely slowly, making for a poor user experience.

The second thing was that they tried to drive Flickr users towards Yahoo as a web portal at a time when the very idea of a web portal was becoming ridiculous. But Yahoo are an advertising company, and that’s what they wanted to do. So they loaded an ugly, clashing Yahoo menu bar at the top of the Flickr site, and they forced everyone to use a Yahoo log-in rather than their old Flickr log-in.

Which is when the problems began for me.

The third thing was that Yahoo did what all these tech companies do: they tried to avoid their user support responsibilities by pushing people towards forums, where the same questions get posted over and over again, with similar answers, and nobody ever gets helped, and the secret portal into actual technical support is hard to find and opaque. All of which is the inevitable result of a free service that clearly doesn’t stand a chance of making money through advertising and which becomes a white elephant, or a millstone hanging around the neck of a slowly dying corporation.

Yahoo is acquired by Verizon, Flickr slips further down the list of priorities, and more and more people find themselves in the same situation as me: unable to resolve the log-in, or successfully recover lost passwords. In 2013, Yahoo was hacked, and 3 billion user accounts were compromised.

Around the same time, my Flickr log-in and password corrupted in some bizarre way and went from being a recognisable email/password to being long strings of random characters.

Like this: 0753036973656d61dc27j2gs1s29h4g8

That’s not my own corrupted log-in, but mine was very similar, and so was the password. I mean, it’s not even an email address. In time, I was unable to get in at all, and after a fruitless run-in with Yahoo support, I ended up creating a new Flickr account so I could continue to upload pictures.

But it was never the same, and I was never happy, and I eventually stopped using the service.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 20.54.00The screen grab left shows a sample of the many Flickr users who are having issues accessing their accounts.

My own problems were exacerbated by the way my Yahoo identities seemed to burgeon. When Yahoo acquired Flickr, I already had a hidden Yahoo identity, because my then-internet provider, BT, used Yahoo as the backbone for its “brinternet.com” email service. But somehow, I ended up with yahoo.com and yahoo.co.uk identities. Over time, and attempts to log into Flickr, these have expanded, and I now appear to have four distinct ways of logging into Yahoo. Four!

But here’s the thing. Every single one of them connects to the new/replacement Flickr account, and none of them will connect to my 2004 vintage Flickr account. So I have four Yahoo log-ins, and no way to get into my old Flickr. In my mind, at least one of the log-ins should resolve to the old 2004 account, but no longer does. So it’s an orphaned account, is what it is. There’s a case here for keeping hold of all of your old computers, phones, and other devices, because account details might be cached/stored. O for the iMac that used to be in the garage.

And it has been five years.

I’ve tried on a couple of occasions to get help from Yahoo. When I saw the news that Flickr is being sold to Smugmug, I thought it was time to try again.

Yahoo’s response is basically robotic. You give them the details of your account(s) and you still get a response along the lines of “I cannot find the account with the details you have given. Please give…”

I got exactly the same automated response as last time. Replying to their emails rarely elicits a human response. They send through a link to “security questions”, which ask you things you could only know if you had access to the account. It’s enraging, and obscure:

  1. Name five private groups or private albums on the account
  2. Give the date of the last charge in the format dd/mm/yyyy
  3. Name the 3rd party services that are linked to the account (apart from Facebook/Tumblr)

My response to (1) is, I don’t know, I haven’t been able to see inside the account for five years.

My response to (2) is, I don’t even know what this question is asking.

My response to (3) is, I don’t know, I haven’t been able to see inside the account for five years.

We went through this three times.

Each time, I replied to their email saying I didn’t understand and couldn’t possibly answer their questions. Each time, I didn’t get a response until I filled in something on the security page. Each time, I was then told that my responses were inadequate.

In the end, they refused to give me access to my account—but they did offer to delete it on my behalf. Consider the warped logic of that: no, we can’t verify your identity, but yes, we will delete all these photos that might not belong to you, because why not.

Meanwhile, I still have four different Yahoo log-ins that all give access to the wrong Flickr account. Meanwhile, I continue to receive communications to my secondary email address which are aimed at my original identity.

The only solution appears to be for me to click through 3,600 photos and manually download them, then add them to the other account, and try to live with the knowledge that the kudos attached to being a 2004 early adopter of this pioneering service is no longer mine.

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And this is probably my most popular Flickr photo, taken in 1998 but scanned in 2005

Melting Down is Good for Business

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Toxic masculinity, as embodied by Rupert Murdoch’s melting face

It’s been a week of meltdowns in the news, sure enough. Meltdown was the name of one of the CPU bugs that were revealed in the New Year. While people were still shitting their pants over the Great Apple Battery Scam (not a scam), Intel revealed something they’d been sitting on for a while, which was that the way their CPU chips works (by speculatively anticipating what they’re going to be asked to do next) leaves them vulnerable to exploits. This was trumpeted widely as a precursor to the End of All Things, Millennium Bug style, since just about anything with an Intel or ARM processor was affected, but (as of Saturday) we’re still alive. Still, you can smell the lawsuits from here, can’t you?

It was last May that all British Airways flights from two airports were cancelled because of an IT problem, and this is the kind of meltdown that pundits fear might ensue when a system vulnerability like this is revealed. More seriously, that same month saw “cyber chaos” in the NHS, as computer systems that hadn’t been updated from Windows XP were attacked over a weekend.

This is what I think of whenever people express concerns about Trump and his obsession with weapons and nuclear buttons. This past week of Whitehouse Meltdowns following the “revelations” in Michael Wolff’s book have been entertaining, and you can’t help but hope it takes us one step closer to the Hollywood Ending of this Presidency, which is when the American people collectively point their fingers in Trump’s direction and pause dramatically before saying, “You’re fired.”

While it’s clear that millions of people are going to suffer as a result of Trump’s “welfare for the rich” tax legislation and his “welfare for the rich” healthcare changes, I have less fear that he’s ever going to launch a nuclear strike. This seems like a cartoon fear of a cartoon president, a childlike clown who has no real power, and is simply going to end up being managed when the grownups take over. Trump is not Putin: he has no real power. Like the rest of the Republican Party, he’ll do the bidding of his corporate and media masters, the Ronald McDonald birthday clown of politics.

As well as being good for lawyers in class action or cease and desist lawsuits, these various meltdowns are good for the news business, as people addictively click on stories to read about how Apple or Intel are ruining their lives or how Trump’s hair is combed and lacquered. And I’ve noticed as an adjunct to all this that the papers are full of chin-stroking columns about the perils of social networking and screens. It’s all New Year New Me and Think Of The Children and, very helpfully, Black Mirror season 4. Same as it ever was, if you ask me. Ten years ago, I would chortle with my students about all the Facebook negging that the Daily Mail went in for, but like lawyers smelling Class Action, the newspapers are all smelling New Year’s Resolutions, as people try to detox from Trump and Bannon and Trolls and whatever that episode of Black Mirror was about.

Should we be worried about tech meltdowns? Probably. As rail commuters weep about paying nearly £8000 a year just to get to work, and our cars hit pot holes and have their own personal meltdowns, and the NHS suffers through yet another Winter Crisis, it’s clear that our infrastructure is fucked. And when it comes to IT, which is increasingly getting involved in every part of our lives, the infrastructure is all in the hands of corporations. So whether it’s your light bulbs, your front door, your fridge, or your TV, these CPU vulnerabilities are likely to strike anywhere. And the only way to hold these corporations to account is via the blunt instrument of the class action lawsuit. Because the politicians do not have their minds on infrastructure, do they?

In the UK, we’re distracted, permanently, by Brexit meltdown. In the US, they’re distracted by Trump meltdown. And even if they weren’t, absolutely no politician ever is interested in building infrastructure projects that won’t come to fruition until long after they’ve left office in disgrace after putting their hand up someone’s skirt. So, in a sense, we can blame toxic masculinity for all of these meltdowns. Men are really too emotional for high office.

Bring on your internet wrecking ball

DNGlrABUIAAr9RO.jpg-large..Having spent the last 20 years of my life wasting time on the internet, I sometimes wonder if I’d be happier without it. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but as we all face the consequences of the targeted use of Big Data to manipulate elections and referenda, and Twitter’s latest hamfisted “improvement” irritates the shit out of us, how much of it would we really miss if it went away?

This has been running through my mind for a couple of days as the Telecom companies in the USA make yet another attempt, through their bought-and-paid-for congressmen, to abolish net neutrality, and thus allow for differential pricing, and a two (or more) speed internet, depending on what you pay for.

You may have seen the graphic above circulating, which purports to show (it’s in Portuguese, and I’m not a doctor) what happens when service providers are allowed to split the open internet into walled-garden “bundles” of different services. Note that this appears to be a mobile phone package, but the point remains – this is what people fear could happen to your regular home internet subscription as well.

Let’s take it from the top.

Messaging: €4.99 a month (opening offer; €6.99 usually?) for the privilege of using your phone as a phone (basically). Well, I guess this I’d need to pay for, just in case I end up in a ditch somewhere (with a phone signal).

Social: €4.99 a month (as above) for your Facebook, Insta, Twits, Snapchat, Pinterest etc. So, yes, I’ve been addicted to Twitter since 2009, but take it away from me? Oh, please don’t throw me in the briar patch, B’rer Fox. Sure, I’d miss it at first, but only in the same way that I miss cigarettes.

Video: €4.99 for YouTube, Netflix (in addition, I’m guessing to your monthly subscriptions to these services). Unavoidable, given that I mostly watch streaming TV services these days. So I’m in for €10 a month so far.

Music: €4.99 Spotify and whatever else those are? I could probably do without this, given that I still host all my music on my device. So unless this includes podcasts, I’m not sure I’d bother.

Email and Cloud: €4.99. So they’re demanding payment for access to your gmail and your iCloud, which is super. Unavoidable, I suppose, which puts me in for €15, plus whatever the basic monthly fee is, plus all the other monthly subscriptions.

Of course, what most customers would want to do would be to choose, say, just the services they use, so these bundles (like TV packages) are designed to have you pay for shit you don’t use – bearing in mind that you’re being asked to pay for shit that is currently free because it has nothing whatsoever to do with meo telecom or whoever they are.

The situation is this: the telecoms are going to get their money. They’re going to get their money, and they’ll keep getting their money, and the only way to avoid giving them your money is to give up on all of it, an increasingly unlikely prospect in a world in which all government agencies are basically assuming you have internet access.

But then, what might it be like, over there on the other side of the walled garden, away from cat memes and Trump tweets and robot followers and troll farms? And away from this blog, of course. All good things…

32 Short Films About Cycling Stuff

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  1. It says a lot about my Shimano commuting cycling shoes (http://amzn.eu/24kXhZ0) that I sometimes don’t take them off for an hour or so after arriving home. This is the first shoe/pedal combination that hasn’t left my feet screaming agony after a 10-mile ride.
  2. Maybe the pedal-assist electric bike is a help with that, but well done Shimano for making a shoe that’s both comfortable on the bike and comfortable to walk in.
  3. One of the things I love about my Kalkhoff Integrale Limited Edition is that it is (until the next time I buy the very latest iPhone model) pretty much State of the Art as far as its category of things (electric commuter bicycles) go. To whit:
  4. The carbon belt drive, which means no chain, no oil, no ruined work trousers.
  5. The low-maintenance hub gears.
  6. The combination of smart battery, motor, computer, bluetooth linked app.
  7. The battery integrated into the downtube.
  8. The integrated lights, with smart ‘parking’ feature for safety first.transparent_csm_kh16_integrale_ltd_white_updated_eb74974ee4_34cb567afb
  9. My one continuing qualm about the bike is its weight, which there is no getting away from. The truth is, I blast through the 16 mph assistance limit pretty easily, but then my legs are pushing along an absolute beast of a bike.
  10. Momentary sideways instability, as I discovered, can quickly result in a spill. Hurt my ankle in September (?) and I still can’t run on it.
  11. If I could have a word with my past self, I would advise him to get the size below. At 1.83 metres, I’m borderline between Medium and Large, and the Medium would have been a bit lighter.
  12. You live and learn.
  13. I’ve deleted Strava, Cyclemeter, etc. and have stopped measuring time, distance, speed – even when I’m on my normal road bike.
  14. Partly it was to do with the electric bike – it was trivially easy to get into the top ten for the KoM on some Strava segments.
  15. Which was funny for a while.
  16. But in the end, it’s an empty achievement and I don’t care.
  17. More importantly, I want to just ride the bike and be in the moment, not worrying about how far and how fast and challenging myself and pushing myself.
  18. A lot of people enjoy this, I know.
  19. I don’t, though.
  20. Is this what they call mindfulness?
  21. Anyway, riding between fields of rape and enjoying the feeling of being immersed in yellow and feeling the slight warming of the air coming off those fields, that’s where I want to be.
  22. I don’t think people who use Strava are bad people.
  23. But being the loner I am, the idea that I’m stacking up all these stats is kind of pointless. I don’t care about myself, and I don’t know anybody who would be remotely interested to hear my average speed for a ride.
  24. My cycling shoes, the comfortable ones, are a size bigger than my normal shoe size.
  25. It’s a compromise.
  26. Actually, I have odd-size feet, which means that one of the shoes is two sizes too big.
  27. But here’s the thing. It’s almost a universal rule that cycling gear is too small for normal people. You always have to buy a size bigger than you think you need.
  28. So if you’re an L for a t-shirt or shirt, you need the XL.
  29. If you are an XL, you need the XXL.
  30. But here’s the other thing.
  31. Many cycling gear manufacturers don’t do the XXL.
  32. Which is why I look ridiculous on my bike.

Shut down, log off, fade away

Mini DV TapeWe are surrounded by digital ephemera.

A while ago now, I reactivated the Facebook account (total of friends = 1), just so there would be one place on the internet where you could find me by my actual name. My timeline consisted almost entirely of my Instagram feed. But I hate Facebook, always have, and as Zuck appears to be preparing to run for office (as a Republican, according to one thing I read), it’s time to kill it. So that’s gone.

I still use Instagram. Although owned by Facebook, it’s fairly harmless, and since I stopped using Flickr (destroyed by Yahoo), it’s the only place I upload photos. But my finger does hover over the button sometimes.

I was attempting to put together a Photos book for 2016 the other day, and I had an enormous number of those red warning triangles, because the “original image could not be found”. Massive database corruption in my Photos library – perhaps caused by my use of CleanMyMac. The photos are there – I can export them and re-import them and fix the triangle issue – but the application doesn’t know they’re there. So that is a massive pain in the arse, and brings to stark relief the eternal problem of what is going to become of all our digital photos in 5–10 years. Apart from low-resolution uploads on early Flickr, I’ve got whole clusters of photos missing.

This came up again when I was rewatching my kids’ childhood DVDs a while ago. A couple of years have gone missing, and one of the DVDs wouldn’t play (though I managed to rip the file off it). I noticed an old MiniDV camcorder at work the other day, which nobody (probably) is ever going to use, and it reminded me that I have a case full of MiniDV tapes with my kids’ (unedited) childhoods on, and I have nothing to play them on.

Digital ephemera. We live in a streaming world. Timelines flick by, news churns 24 hours a day, people are up in arms about one thing after another, ricocheting between issues of import and issues of no import as if it were all the same.

I spent half an hour this morning unfollowing a bunch more people on Twitter. People I like and respect, even admire, but I cannot bear to read their political and news tweets, because they make me feel impotent with outrage, powerless, depressed. Muting keywords doesn’t work because things always leak through, and in the end I came to the conclusion that, for the foreseeable future and for my own sanity, I’ll probably end up unfollowing most of the Americans on my feed, and many more besides.

I’ve said it before: complaining on Twitter achieves nothing; the people you need to reach are not on there; it’s not a substitute for activism. Twitter is for jokes, for people-watching, for aphorisms, art, wit, photos, videos, all of that digital ephemera. But it’s not for politics or climate change, or bringing down capitalism or fighting nazis. People get mad about stuff, sure, but never so mad that they put down their phones and do anything.

 

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

1260745459712720788Obviously, I knew about this book a while ago, but like any normal human, I was offput by its extreme length. At 850+ pages, this is not for the faint hearted.

Another slightly offputting thing was the idea that this novel included a depiction of humanity approximately 5000 years from now. I’ve read enough science fiction to be wary of that kind of thing. You know, the posthuman, post singularity stuff, featuring gene spliced beings with elaborate, stratified social mores and technology indistinguishable from magic. The kind of thing that was visible in that movie Jupiter Rising. I don’t object to that kind of thing per se, but I do sometimes get impatient with all the made up words and the exhausting process of detective work, trying to ascertain what’s going on.
But then a colleague lent me Seveneves, so I started to read it and was pleasantly surprised.
First of all, the question of style. It’s written in perfectly clear, plain English, and though it does feature extended discussions of orbital mechanics, it does so in a way that makes you, the arts/humanities student, feel like you understand it.
Secondly, my colleague said that the only (major!) problem was that the plot doesn’t start to happen until the final third of the 850 pages. This is true in the sense that it could in fact have been published as the final third, with the reader left to fill in the complicated back story, in that aforementioned offputting way. You could also, effectively, publish the first two thirds as an Appendix to the final third, for those who want to fill in the ins and outs after reading the main story. But I think that would be to do Seveneves a disservice.

Don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens.

The premise is that something destroys the Moon, which in turn has catastrophic consequences for life on Earth. Within two years, some means of surviving off-planet has to be improvised. That’s the exciting first third of the book: exactly what could we do, right now, with the technology and resources we have. I found this section readable and fascinating, and so far from what I expected that I began to feel undaunted by its length.
The next section details the what now? moment, at which point the surviving humans have to decide how to survive and even thrive. Inevitably, they are riven by conflict and disaster. A small group wants to go to Mars. Others want to go into a higher orbit to avoid Moon fragments. A third groups want less of an eggs in one basket solution. The catastrophic end result is that, five years in, just eight people survive, all women, only seven of them able to bear children.
So ends the second third of the novel, with the Seven Eves deciding what to do next.
The final third takes place 5000 years later. There is a thriving, if not united, civilisation in space, and the sterilised Earth has been reseeded with life. There are seven races of humans, with some hybridisation, but in the main we’re supposed to believe that there are seven distinct personality types. Frankly, this is all a bit handwavy, and it is slightly more complex than my description.
The main plot of this last third concerns the discovery of a group of humans who survived by building a space-type habitat under a mountain. But the real reason for reading is to learn about the nuts and bolts of this far-future society.
And here’s the thing. On a human scale, 5000 years is a long time. I think the Great Pyramid was built around 4500 years ago. What the last third of this novel tries to do is summarise the whole story of a civilisation and provide a narrative plot. In narratology terms, this is fascinating. But it doesn’t quite work because as much book as this is, it ends up being not quite enough. You kind of need less of the first two years and more of the end bit. And yet, the setup matters, because that’s where we meet the Seven, and come to understand them as characters.
That this is one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read, I’ve no doubt. It’s though provoking, educational and fascinating. But it’s a flawed masterpiece that probably needed another 200 pages.

The continuing frustrations of Apple Music

The ‘functional high ground’ argument is in the air again, with various tech journalists and podcasters weighing in with their opinions on various parts of Apple software. There are still occasional glimpses of former glory: Music Memos was quietly released and is the kind of songwriting tool I’d have loved to have, back when I was writing a lot of songs. It does exactly what you’d want it to do: it’ll tune your guitar, has a big record button, it knows what chords you’re playing, and it even adds a decent robot backing track. Only Apple, as we used to say so often, can do this.

But of course, iTunes continues to be horrible, and I’m not alone in thinking that Photos is a poor substitute for Aperture and doesn’t need to keep its editing tools so deeply buried – multiple clicks to achieve a simple edit is not good design.

My greatest frustration continues to be Apple Music, which is awful on so many levels that I haven’t even seen any of the pros complaining about the problems I’m encountering. Theirs are all to do with synching and matching and so on, whereas mine are mainly to do with basic functionality and interface.

But I’ll start of with that synching feeling. A permanent feature on my phone’s screen in Music is the phrase, ‘Showing only music on this iPhone. Show All Music.

That last bit, highlighted in red, is supposed to be a button, but of course we’re not allowed to have ‘buttons’ anymore because they’re skeumorphic. So we just have to guess that ‘Show All Music’ is a button. But take a look at this screenshot.

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Yes, the greyed out tracks are not on my iPhone. Not. On. My. iPhone. So I shouldn’t be seeing them, should I? And yet they are there.

Getting into my car the other night, I plugged my phone into the Media connector in the car, and of course it started playing music, starting with the first song beginning with A (currently ‘After Hours’ by the Velvet Underground). Which is not what I wanted it to do. One of my daily frustrations is that my phone, unlike iPods of old, rarely seems to remember where it had reached in the playback (I play through all my songs alphabetically, which is my favourite form of ‘shuffle’). So it defaults to the first of the ‘A’s and I get angry and frustrated – and begin to kind of hate and resent that hapless first song (of 1000) in the list.

So I’m sitting in the car and ‘After Hours’ starts up, and I pick up the phone to find where I think the playback had reached, somewhere in the ‘D’s, and I tap the screen to play that song. Somewhere in the ‘D’s. I tap. And it starts to play ‘Baggage Claim’ by Miranda Lambert. What?

After a bit of experimentation, I realise that tapping somewhere in the ‘F’s will start playing somewhere in the ‘C’s, and so on. So as well as showing music that is not on the phone, Music is now also reading a tap in the ‘D’s as a tap in the ‘B’s. Brilliant. I suspect that means that the phone is seeing the tap where it really would be if it wasn’t displaying a bunch of songs that are not on the phone. If I could somehow make them invisible, I’d see that I was, in fact, tapping in the ‘B’s.

That was happening under the My Music tab (which is not a button, nor is it a tab, so what are we supposed to call it, Jony Ive? A section?). When I tapped into Playlists, my one and only playlist was there, and I was able to navigate through it and play back normally. But I shouldn’t have to do that, because there’s only one fucking playlist on the phone, and so the My Music section should have just the songs from that.

And I wouldn’t have to be doing all this if the app remembered where it was in the playback list.

Take a look at this second screen shot:

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Yes, that’s in the Playlist section, and you can see we’re playing back ‘Give Him a Great Big Kiss’ by the Shangri-Las. Now, what if I wanted to skip to the next track from this screen? I could tap the next on the list, but if I wanted to skip several, I’d have to scroll first, stop the scrolling, then tap the one I wanted. So to see an actual Skip option, I have to tap the tiny white band near the bottom and go into the Playback screen. What if I wanted to pause playback? There is a chance of doing that, because there is a tiny play/pause not-a-button. But what are the chances of hitting this first time if I am walking, or driving my car, or riding my bicycle? 50/50 at best, I’d say. Note that the image above, because of the resolution of my phone’s screen, exaggerates the size of the tap target. Now, given how huge my phone’s screen is, why does the play/pause button have to be so small? Why is there no skip forward or skip back?

Why is this software such a piece of shit at doing what it’s supposed to do?

I suspect the answer to that is that I’m not supposed to want to do any of this. I’m supposed to subscribe to the streaming service, and put my music listening into the hands of curators or algorithms, and just passively accept whatever Music decides to play. I suppose there might be some people who are happy with that. Me? Not so much.

Which brings me to my final complaint. Apart from not giving enough space to playback controls, the Music app also imposes the Radio not-a-button and the Connect not-a-button at the bottom of the screen, where they are liable to (only ever) be clicked accidentally, much like the Moments button on twitter.com. Why can’t I go into a Preferences pane and turn those items off? Why can’t I select an option for a larger playback button? Why doesn’t telling the app only to show music on the iPhone do what it’s supposed to do?

Because Apple Music is shite. And here’s the thing: I’ve tried a couple of other playback apps, hoping to leave all the Music nastiness behind, but they don’t work. They too forget where they were playing back – because they can never take over the System playback from Music. And they too (presumably following the Human Interface Guidelines) have tiny playback buttons.

Grrr!

And don’t get me started on the Music app on the new Apple TV…

A lay-person’s guide to The Great Content Blocking Controversy of 2015

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 09.04.19A lot of the tech podcasts I listen to often refer to ‘ordinary people’, that vast majority of technology users who use devices without necessarily understanding how they work. Which can sometimes sound like a snotty remark but is certainly something that holds true for Apple products in particular. For example, it turns out, most people don’t care how much RAM is installed in their tablet or smartphone; most people aren’t bothered by the number of megapixels in the camera. Nokia once launched a phone with 31 (was it?) megapixels, but people didn’t rush to buy it.

Most people are satisfied that their iPhone or whatever works. They might complain if they can’t run an update because of a lack of space, but those pains are usually temporary. The tech podcasts are always harping on about the inadequacy of the 16GB iPhone (friends don’t let friends buy 16GB), but it turns out that 43 percent of iPhone sales are of 16GB models. Regular people just get what they can get and what they think they can afford. From Apple’s perspective, they get a new customer who gets the ‘affordable’ phone. When it comes time to upgrade, that customer is likely to go for the bigger capacity middle tier, having experienced how shit things can be at the bottom end. This is what you call playing the long game. The entry-level iPhone is good enough that people want to stick with it; but 16GB is bad enough that people will spend more the next time. And more likely to want to replace an ageing phone than keep it another year.

I consider myself halfway between an ordinary person and a techie. I understand technology, and I know a lot about it, but I’m not a coder or an engineer. One thing I think we’ve all been aware of over the past couple of years is how shit web sites are in mobile Safari. You follow a link from a tweet and it takes you to, say, The Independent. The page loads slowly, even though you are on wifi or a fast 4G connection. When the article appears, it is interrupted every few lines by intrusive ads. While you’re reading the article, the progress bar at the top shows that the page is still loading. You finish reading the article, and the page is still loading.

Or these scenarios: you follow a link to a story, but instead of getting the web page you get bounced into the App Store and are prompted to buy the app that goes with that site. Or the page is covered by a prompt to buy the app. Or the page is covered by a massive ad that you can’t dismiss. Or there’s an ad on the page that scrolls when you scroll, making the content impossible to see. Or the page loads and you start to scroll but then an ad appears at the last minute and you have accidentally tapped it, and a new page opens, one you didn’t want to visit.

Instead of the article, or news story or opinion column, you just get assailed by ads. And everything takes forever to load. Back in the late 90s, we used to say that seven seconds was the time you got before a web visitor grew restless and decided not to stay on your page. Seven seconds seems like luxury now. Even though computers are a lot faster, even though bandwidth is a lot wider, somehow the web got really, really slow. Especially on mobiles. It’s especially bad if you have anything other than an unlimited data plan, or if you’re roaming overseas. These news articles shouldn’t be gobbling your data in the way they are.

What’s been happening is that struggling publishers are allowing ad networks to run all kinds of scripts, throw up all kinds of intrusive and nasty advertising, to run all kinds of nosy trackers, in order to pay their overheads and (in some cases at least) writers. The ad networks aren’t advertisers per se, they are the brokers, the middlemen. And they don’t care that you just followed a link and can’t read the article. Their job is to serve ads. They also don’t care how they serve those ads: because they’re charging advertisers per ad served, they have found ways of serving a lot of ads. Some of which, it seems, aren’t even visible.

Allegedly, there are JPEGS and videos running away underneath the ads you do see, which are also ads, and which the ad networks are charging the advertisers for. It almost seems like a massive fraud is being perpetrated, doesn’t it?

Into this dystopia slips the largely unassuming iOS update to version 9. This is not an aggressive update. There aren’t new, flatter icons, there’s not a lot of surface change. If it was a leopard, it would be a snow leopard. There’s a new system font (hooray) and the return of the -1 screen, which now features suggestions from Siri. The fucking shift key problem has been (sort of) fixed. But there is a small new feature that is proving controversial.

It was a slow train coming. The publishers and ad networks could see it coming down the track. But still, if you visited Macworld, or iMore, or CNET, or any newspaper web site, the experience was bad: the pages loaded slow, the progress bar sometimes never reached the end. From Apple’s point of view, it was embarrassing. Because when almost all web pages load slowly, you’re not thinking, javascript, you’re not thinking, trackers, you’re not thinking, fifty ads loading in the background that I can’t even see. You’re thinking, gee this tiny little mostly-text web page is taking forever to load. Mobile Safari is SHIT.

And there’s the rub. With so many ‘ordinary people’ of the opinion that mobile Safari is shit, Apple had to act. And they acted by allowing developers to create content blockers. Go ahead, try it: download Crystal. Suddenly, those Independent and Guardian web pages appear instantly. Orders of magnitude quicker. Mobile Safari is fast. Your £600-700 iPhone is fucking amazing. You have as much computing power in your pocket as you’d have found in a laptop of a few years ago. This technology is remarkable. But those scripts, those trackers, those possibly fraudulent ads, were slowing everything down (and hogging your data).

And as soon as the public got hold of these blockers, the publishers started howling. Marco Arment released one, Peace, that he’d been quietly working on without talking about it on his podcast. It went straight to the top of the App charts. Something that the techies might have thought was just for them turns out to be of appeal to ‘ordinary people’. The content appears: the ads don’t. Everything is quicker.

The problem, of course, is that if the ads don’t load, the publishers don’t get paid. Nor do the ad networks, but I have less sympathy for (most of) them, because this situation is their fault. Some ad networks (like The Deck) don’t serve nasty ads, and yet their ads too are blocked. So sites like Daring Fireball and Six Colors are losing revenue. I think because of this, because some of his colleagues and friends were suffering, Mr Arment had a change of heart. He withdrew Peace from the store after two days. I think he was expecting Overcast levels of interest, and the success shocked him.

The publishers have always had this problem. But (with the exception of those smart enough to use the less-is-more approach of Daring Fireball) it’s of their own making. They’ve been giving away their content for free for too long and trying to pay for it with levels of advertising that cross the line in terms of intrusion and invasion of privacy. Some of them (in the UK) have tried to blame the BBC for this, but although the BBC news content is free, it’s also pretty shit, Ceefax quality, and no competition for the newspapers with their campaigning and political agendas, which the BBC can’t follow. No, the free model was the publisher’s own fault, and now they need to do what they should have done fifteen years ago, and look more seriously at subscriptions and micro-payments, or even short “sponsor-read” type articles which follow the podcast advertising model and are less annoying.

Most of all, advertisers and ad networks need to stop fucking tracking people’s online habits. Leave us our privacy and remember: just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

Diminishing tech returns

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 14.28.09It struck me, as I spent two nights this week trying to sort out my daughter’s problems with her new Apple Music app, that Apple have been releasing a lot of stuff recently that doesn’t work that well.

When I worked for an IT company, we always used to joke about ‘upgrades’ making things worse, and computers being rubbish. The problem for the industry has always been that it relies too much on making stuff obsolete as quickly as seems reasonable (to them) and refreshing/recycling their product cycles. When you depend on your existing customer base for the your future income and profits, you’re always going to be making things steadily worse.

Tech always follows this pattern. Things start off basic, with few features. Then, for a few cycles things might improve as ‘missing’ features are added and the usefulness and functionality of the hardware/software improves. But then, always, a tipping point is reached and the platform is in trouble.

PageMaker was good up to version 5, I seem to remember. Then PageMaker 6 was worse, and then it died, to be replaced by InDesign. InDesign itself is so long in the tooth that it’s too hard for new users to learn properly. Long-term users probably hate and resent it by now, too. Photoshop probably peaked around CS1. The current version, again, is just too hard for a new customer to pick up and use effectively. Think about that: you’re only making something for people who have been using it for years, and who can take on board new features or simply know enough to ignore them.

MS Word peaked around version 5. Apple Pages peaked two or three versions back. iMovie peaked at version 2. iTunes, christ, it’s been so long since it was any good, I don’t even remember.

First computers got to complicated, and they gave us smartphones, which were simpler. Software written for mobiles had to be small, efficient, and fast. But then the hardware kept ‘improving’, so the software got more complex, with more features, demanding more and more of the hardware. So then they introduce the Watch, which gives us a smaller, simpler platform again. But there’s a problem, a perception that even these simpler platforms are starting out too complex.

I’m not sure it’s entirely true of the Watch. I mean, there’s a whole lot of web sites depend on publishing how-to articles and FAQs and reviews, and they have a stake in making things seem a little bit difficult. So I haven’t got a Watch and couldn’t say, but I do know how disappointed I have been in recent years by the following:

  • iMovie – which took a turn for the worse, threw away loads of features (I guess Apple were trying to do the right thing) but just became a lot less useful. This was mainly because Apple have tried to make iOS and MacOS versions more or less identical.
  • Pages – which went from being a fast and efficient word processor and page layout app to being half-crippled for the same reason that iMovie was
  • Aperture – which was better than Photoshop for virtual darkroom duties, but has now been discontinued
  • Photos – which replaces the terrible iPhoto and Aperture, but does less than the latter and is (again, I say this) intentionally crippled so that iOS and MacOS versions match.
  • Various upgrades to the Mac itself, which have created loads of niggles. Slow discovery of WiFi; Mail refusing to send; printers disappearing and reappearing; Airplay, which barely works and means I’ve wasted £ on speakers I never use.
  • And now iTunes/Music, which have fucked things up in bizarre ways. For example, my star ratings have disappeared from about 25% of my tracks; artwork has disappeared; my daughter’s phone kept logging into my Apple ID (how?) and downloading my playlists to her phone (older, with less storage). Twice.
  • Family sharing, ha ha.
  • iCloud, ha ha.

I could go on. Some of the problems don’t even get that much publicity, and I think I know why. People now expect their tech to be complicated and barely functional. All the new users Apple have gained in recent years have come from platforms where this was how things were. But for long-term Mac users (a smaller niche), the way things are now is much, much worse than it ever was.

The case of Photos, and even iMovie, were instances where Apple was trying to do the right thing by users, and strip things back to the basics, trying to make things easier. When it comes to Music, however, they’re glomming on new features and complicating the interface and user experience.

Music discovery and music consumption are in fact two separate things. Mixing them together creates a poor user experience. The nice thing about iOS was in fact the way that the iTunes store, with its fairly useless music discovery tools, was completely separate from the Music listening app. But the new Music throws in your face the frankly terrible curation going on in the iTunes music store when it comes to new music discovery. It reminds me of my old job, a few years ago, when I had to step in to stop the purchasing department from creating new product categories for almost every new product they put into the database – mainly because they didn’t know enough about stuff to know what it was or what it did. In the case of music, different employees are obviously categorising music in different ways, so that the same artist doing the same sort of thing will ends up under Blues, Country, Singer-Songwriter, or Folk, depending on, I guess, who is inputting the data. Or maybe the problem is at record label level.

Anyway, finding new stuff is not easy. And human curators who know less than you do are not going to help.

For a few years, it looked as if Apple might succeed in the Jobsian project of turning computers into appliances. But recent events have sent things off the rails. There are lots of things to love about Tim Cook’s Apple. I love his activism, his focus on diversity, his robust response to dickhead analysts and shareholders. But. We’ve taken several steps backwards from the computers-as-appliances goal. And this is not the first blog entry I have written rueing a recent Apple ‘upgrade’.