Ian's collection of miscellany

For the week ending 13th June, 2021

Hey, it’s been quite a fun week hasn’t it?

On to the stuff.

Technology

WWDC stuff

As is traditional, I’ve installed the developer betas on my production machines – yeah, live dangerously – and as usual I won’t be talking much about the details of those features until the public betas are out. What always amazes me is the high quality of even the first beta. No, you shouldn’t use it on production machines, but really you can and that’s a testament to how hard the developers have worked on these releases.

I won’t bother to round up all the stuff, but generally all of it looks like nice and useful features rather than big fat game changers. The improvements to iPadOS won’t quite take it to the point where it’s a laptop replacement for more power users (still no proper external screen support? Come on) but the multitasking is better and the little quick note thing is also very neat. Having notes which appear as icons when you navigate back to the web page you’re taking notes on is neat, and I would love this to also work in Apple Books (and Kindle – it’s all open APIs, as far as I can tell).

The private relay thing is interesting and useful and – if you have it enabled for sites as well as trackers – completely breaks some old-stool web-based chat rooms which like a persistent connection, at least at the moment.

And some of the features of MacOS Monterey require an M1 Mac, and aren’t supported on Intel. This gives you an idea of which features are built to use the Neural Engine – and expect this list to get longer with every release. If you have an Intel Mac (like this 16in MacBook Pro I’m typing on) its life at the cutting edge is going to be remarkably short.

No new hardware – of course – but that’s not surprising. Other than the release of the iPhone, which really is pegged to the last quarter and Christmas buying season, Apple can release hardware when it’s ready.

Code is law is back!

If you're one of the Internet 1.0 people you'll remember the first emergence of the idea that "code is law", first formulated by Lawrence Lessig at the turn of the millennium. Lessig saw this (rightly) as a threat:

"This regulator is code--the software and hardware that make cyberspace as it is. This code, or architecture, sets the terms on which life in cyberspace is experienced. It determines how easy it is to protect privacy, or how easy it is to censor speech. It determines whether access to information is general or whether information is zoned. It affects who sees what, or what is monitored. In a host of ways that one cannot begin to see unless one begins to understand the nature of this code, the code of cyberspace regulates."

Unfortunately, "code is law" has now been embraced by the cryptobros as a vindication of their beliefs, a positive rather than a negative:

The quote is from a long rambling essay about some cryptocurrency-conference (it’s fun referring to it properly as cryptocurrency, rather than the sexier and more edgy abbreviation). And whoever first referred to bitcoin as “Dunning-Krugerands” is a genius.

Apple, privacy, and targeted advertising

Lots of debate about the ever-increasing moves by Apple to protect your privacy, and there’s some predictable push-back too. Not that Apple isn’t doing enough (it isn’t – HELLO CHINA) but that it’s robbing people of their livelihoods, or, even more bizarrely, making the user experience worse for ordinary people:

A surprising number of people – including, clearly, Dare – don't know that Taboola is highly-targeted: those "low quality" ads really are based on a whole load of data about what's relevant to you.

This quickly shows that the idea that more data = higher quality ads is just bunk. Dare is arguing that more data is good for the user experience, but the fact that everyone acknowledges that Taboola/Outbrain ads deliver a poor user experience shows this just isn't the case. And anyone who has been chased around the internet by retargeting ads based on something you put in a basket and then went on to actually buy at another place will happily tell you what a waste of time those ads are.

There’s a couple of things here. Note Benedict’s easy elision of "free” (as in beer) with "free” (as in open). As everyone, ever, has pointed out for decades, the two things are not the same. The web should be open; but there’s no reason anything on the web must be free (as in beer).

The “more competition” argument is also weird. Looking at the web as it is today, can anyone really say there is more competition? Facebook and Google dominate discovery to such a huge degree that entire industries are bent into shape by them. They’re two supermassive black holes where the gravity is so intense that you need to follow their rules if you ever want your free content to be discovered.

That they also happen to run huge advertising businesses which allow you to shortcut all that discovery stuff by paying them large sums of cash is, I’m sure, a complete coincidence.

Then there’s Benedict's argument is that non-targeted ads are less effective for businesses. There is an awful lot of evidence that it's not as simple as that. Ads may be badly targeted but still appear effective, or the data – or more likely its inferences – may just be crap.

More importantly, though, whether something is good for business is not the final arbiter of whether it's permissible. Targeted advertising relies on a level of data collection which is ultimately bad for society as a whole. That is what matters: not whether it squeezes out a few hundred million more in profits for very large companies.

Politics

Kent Council council now has double the number of unaccompanied child migrants in its care. Priti Patel could solve this in an afternoon by invoking the Home Office's powers to force other councils to take a bigger share, but she won't, because she is a terrible excuse for a human being.

Kent County council was, notoriously, the one that kept its own version of Section 28 on the books after it was repealed nationally. These are not kind hearted liberals.