Jonathan Crowe

Book reviewer, cat photographer, fanzine editor, map blogger, snake whisperer.

Category: Tech

Party Like It’s 2004

In 2005, two products I used heavily were sold to new owners: the photo hosting service Flickr was sold to Yahoo, and the Mac RSS reader app NetNewswire was sold to NewsGator. Those decisions turned out to be pivotal, and not necessarily to the good; and this year they’re in the process of being undone.

Flickr didn’t exactly reach its full potential under its new owners, Yahoo not being one of the competently run tech giants, and for many years it languished, falling behind its competitors as its parent company died a slow death. Verizon acquired Yahoo last year, and in April of this year SmugMug bought Flickr from Verizon’s Oath subsidiary. Today SmugMug announced some changes to Flickr. Most controversially, the one terabyte of free storage announced in 2013 is coming to an end, and free users are limited to 1,000 photos. This is not a surprise: SmugMug is a small but profitable private company that has never taken VC funding, and they’re not interested in offering a free service to everyone in order to get their personal data; they want to sell services to customers, not customers to advertisers. Which in 2018 is refreshing. Also, they’re small and privately held: they can’t run at a loss. In some ways this is a retreat: they’re not going to even try to compete with the social media networks. But I suspect it’ll make for a better experience, at least for those who pay $50 a year for it, or have fewer than 1,000 photos. Not everything has to scale.

As for NetNewsWire, its development also languished for a while, as ownership passed from NewsGator to Black Pixel in 2011. At a point where most people were consuming RSS feeds via online readers like Google Reader, a desktop app—especially one you paid for—was almost an anachronism, though NetNewsWire always had healthy numbers in my feed stats. (How much of that was myself, though?) RSS itself, however, withered on the vine, as users started getting their news from social media sites rather than newsreader apps or portal pages (a lot of my RSS traffic came from Yahoo, oddly enough), and especially after Google Reader was shut down in 2013.

Version 4 of NetNewswire eventually came out in 2015. It was a commercial product, and I paid for it. But since then it’s been getting increasingly crufty. It keeps unread articles long past the point they disappeared from their RSS feeds, to the point that I now have something like 175,000 unread articles. As you might expect, even on my quad-core 5K iMac, this has an impact on performance: the app regularly pegs a processor core, and the spinning pinwheel of death is a frequent visitor. Whereas the original NetNewsWire was quick and snappy on a G3 iBook. It’s frustrating.

At the end of August, Black Pixel ended support for NetNewsWire sync and transferred the name and intellectual property to Brent Simmons, the original developer of said quick and snappy first version, who is releasing a new version 5.0 of NetNewsWire as a free and open-source app. You can download an early build today: it is, in Brent’s words, “not even alpha” and “barely useable”; it lacks some of the most basic of features (you can’t even drag a feed from one folder to another). But it’s so fast and responsive, compared to NetNewsWire 4.1, that I’ve already switched to it. It may be barely useable, but it at least it doesn’t freeze my computer.

So at least with these two services we’ve come full circle: small, functional and cruft-free services that predated the VC-fed ramp-up to rapacious data collection, invasive advertising and social-media dysfunction are, in the end, still ticking along, and able to find a home in more modest surroundings. They’re living fossils that come from an Internet that was smaller, less resource-intensive and more private. In many ways I miss that Internet.

Mastodon Is the Dreamwidth of Twitter

Here we go again. Twitter is once again being awful and clueless—to the point of paralysis—about it now being the last safe harbour for online harassers, trolls, Nazis and other bad actors, and a good chunk of its user base is sufficiently fed up about it to threaten a mass walkout.

But walking away from Twitter is difficult, because social media is pervasive and addictive for a reason: it solves a problem. Human beings crave connection, and social media makes connections practically frictionless. Problem is, it’s pretty damn hard for users to connect when they’re subjected to torrents of abuse and harassment by bad actors, especially when Twitter not only refuses to deal with said bad actors, but seems to think that the existence of abuse and harassment is a feature rather than a bug.

Okay, so what about switching to another social media platform, one that doesn’t seem quite so keen on deep-throating Nazis? Apart from the questionable logic that the solution to social media problems is even more social media, other platforms are either problematic in their own right (Facebook), irrelevant (Google+, Tumblr, the new social platform of the week that gets the same few early adopters at launch, such as Ello or Vero), or Instagram.

And then there’s Mastodon, a decentralized, open-source and surprisingly well-designed alternative to Twitter that has measures to combat toxic behaviour built into its design. I’m on Mastodon. I like it. But in the same way that Dreamwidth is not the solution to LiveJournal, Mastodon is not the solution to Twitter.1

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Twitter Isn’t Just Awful, It’s Unnecessary

So I’m taking a day off from Twitter, in solidarity with #womenboycottTwitter. It was an easy decision to make, because Twitter is objectively awful on several levels. It’s a performative rage-machine with a distressingly bad signal-to-noise ratio that enables racists, fascists, harassers and other sociopaths and punishes the targets of same. In a sane world we wouldn’t put up with it, but we do—and Twitter’s management is counting on that—because we think Twitter is somehow necessary, in terms of getting our message out, in terms of sending traffic to our websites …

Yeah, about that. It turns out that Twitter is terrible at sending traffic to websites. Despite all the noise and the rage, we tend not to click on the links attached to tweets.

To see what I mean, here are some traffic stats from The Map Room, my map blog. New posts on The Map Room are automatically posted to Facebook, Google+, Twitter and Tumblr (and someone’s even imported the RSS feed into LiveJournal), but there are share links at the bottom of each post as well. So where does most of The Map Room’s traffic come from?

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iOS 10.1.1 Fixes the Health and Activity Data Bug

That was fast — much faster than I expected. Today Apple released iOS 10.1.1, which fixes the Health/Activity app bug I described in detail last night.

I downloaded the update this afternoon and everything is now back to normal. The Health and Activity apps have their data back — and not just the data from before the 10.1 update. The iPhone continued to collect and receive Health and Activity data during the period of the bug — even the weight data I entered manually. It just couldn’t display it.

This must have been a simple fix, like a typo in the code, if they could go from gathering data to releasing a solution in two days flat.

Health and Activity Data Disappearing After iOS 10.1 Update

There are reports that the iOS 10.1 update is deleting users’ Health data. I can say something about this, because it’s happened to me too.

On Friday I installed the 10.1 update on my new iPhone 7, which had arrived the previous day and was so far working flawlessly. Transferring the data from my old iPhone 5 and pairing my Watch had taken place without incident. But on Saturday morning I noticed that my Health data — which goes back two years — was missing. So was my Activity data, which goes back to April (when I bought the Watch).

I checked the Internet and found a few reports of people having their Health data disappear on them after the 10.1 update on the Apple discussion boards and in online media: see here and here. Those reports suggested that nothing appeared to fix the problem — not restarting, not restoring from backup or factory settings, not even downgrading back to 10.0.3. They also suggested that the data was simply inaccessible rather than missing.  A check of Settings revealed that I still have (as of this writing) 88.5 megabytes of Health data; I just can’t get at it. And adding new data doesn’t do anything: it doesn’t appear either.

So I called AppleCare, which began as an exercise in frustration. Getting past the first level of support required me to breathe fire a bit, and I got disconnected when being transferred, but in the end I got through to a senior advisor and was able to have a productive conversation about it. Apple is just starting to get reports on this, so not everyone has encountered customer complaints about it or knows about it — keep this in mind if you have to call AppleCare yourself.

From what I can tell Apple’s engineers are still trying to get a handle on the issue. I was given a number of questions to answer that I presume are so that they can replicate the issue, and I’ve been following up with additional observations (which by the way is really quite extraordinary: it takes out a bit of the sting of having been hit by this bug to be able to help in fixing it) so I suspect they’re at the early stages of “Apple is aware of the situation and is working on a solution.”

img_3516I hope that this will turn out to be an easy fix and that it’ll be pushed out quickly. (Apple has every motivation to get this done fast: Health and Activity are rather important features that form a major part of the rationale for the Apple Watch.) The fact that the data still appears to be there, and that Activity sharing is still taking place between my and Jennifer’s Watches, makes me think that it’s a problem with the user-facing apps accessing the data rather than the data itself. When you go into Sources in the Health app and choose one of the data sources (for example, your iPhone or your Watch), I get an endlessly spinning wheel; on Jennifer’s iPhone SE, which is still running iOS 10.0.3, the categories of data the devices contribute to (such as heart rate, walking activity) show up in a second or two.

Does this mean you should hold off upgrading to 10.1 if you haven’t already done so? That’s a really tough call: 10.1 fixes some major security flaws that really ought not to be left unfixed. It’s not clear how widespread the Health and Activity problem is: whether it’s affecting only a few people or whether it’s hitting everyone who uses the apps — we’ll know more in the coming days. At this point, if you have an Apple Watch or use the Health app a lot, I can totally understand not wanting to upgrade quite yet.

Twitter: A House No One Wants to Buy

twitter_logo_blueTwitter’s harassment problem is finally — finally — biting it in the ass. Both Salesforce and Disney have passed on making an offer for the social media company, and it’s being reported that at least part of the reason is Twitter’s inability or unwillingness to deal with trolls, harassment and abuse, which would have done damage to the companies’ brand image if they had made Twitter their responsibility. It wasn’t the only reason, but it was one of them.

I’m always one for analogies. Here’s one that comes to mind: Twitter is a homeowner trying to sell their house. Now the house needs a lot of work. Fixing that house up will not only get you a better price, it’ll improve your odds of selling it at all. A house that needs fixing up scares off a lot of potential buyers; if and when it does sell, it’ll be at a much lower price than it would have had the homeowner did the repairs in the first place.

I wonder if now, at long last, Twitter will start fixing its house up. Because leaving the repairs for the next owner to deal with is not a great selling point.

Facebook, Kingsnake.com and Reptile Hobbyists

The liberal political website Daily Kos has a piece on how Facebook has been wreaking havoc on independent website owners by drawing away both users and advertising dollars. They used as their example Jeff Barringer’s Kingsnake.com, which a decade and a half ago was the online reptile community website. That was a blast from the past: back then I spent an awful lot of time reading and commenting there, but I don’t think I’ve visited it at all in more than a decade.

It’s safe to say that most reptile hobbyists have migrated to Facebook. The mailing lists I subscribed to have been moribund for years, whereas I manage an active Facebook group with 2,500 members. What precipitated the move? I have a few guesses. For users, discoverability—everyone’s already on Facebook. And a Facebook group is turn-key: easy to set up, easy to use, already part of the ecosystem. You don’t need to buy web hosting or set up forum software. Also, reptile hobbyists are a fractious lot. A bunch of Canadian reptile hobbyists up and left Kingsnake.com’s Canadian site in a huff and started another site; then a bunch of that site’s users left it in a huff and started yet another site (which is still in operation, kind of). This diluted the authority of any one community website; no single site was compelling enough to have the stickiness necessary to go up against Facebook.

The end result is bad for independent site owners, who rely—or rather relied—on ad revenues that have long since dried up, and bad for the web ecosystem in general. It’s great for Facebook, of course, but it’s not necessarily bad for individual users. Let me be blunt: Kingsnake.com today looks a lot like it did in the late 1990s. Most independent reptile communities were not necessarily well-run in a technical or community sense. For users, Facebook can be an improvement—especially if Facebook is too busy delivering targeted advertising based on your personal data to care whether or not you should have to pay to post a classified ad.

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