So many billionaire regrets

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Facebook co-f0under Chris Hughes, calling for a break up of Facebook in The New York Times opinion section:

The most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Mark’s unilateral control over speech. There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people. Facebook engineers write algorithms that select which users’ comments or experiences end up displayed in the News Feeds of friends and family. These rules are proprietary and so complex that many Facebook employees themselves don’t understand them […]

If the government were to use this moment to resurrect an effective competition standard that takes a broader view of the full cost of “free” products, it could affect a whole host of industries. The alternative is bleak. If we do not take action, Facebook’s monopoly will become even more entrenched. With much of the world’s personal communications in hand, it can mine that data for patterns and trends, giving it an advantage over competitors for decades to come.

In writing this piece, Hughes joins a litany of former Facebook execs who have come out against the company, including Dustin Muskovitz, Sean Parker, and Brian Acton (Casey Newton has a good rundown here).

In a striking coincidence, pretty much all of them rebuked Facebook after becoming immeasurably enriched by the company. So weird how they found the courage to voice their convictions not during their time there, but way afterwards, when they’d all become billionaires. (To be fair, Hughes acknowledges this and takes responsibility for it in his piece).

Putting that aside though, we should evaluate whether Hughes’ recommendations have merit on their own. And on that measure, his primary suggestions don’t really stand up to even cursory scrutiny. Ezra Klein breaks it down over at Vox:

This is the core contradiction of Hughes’s essay. Every time he names the decisions that competition led Facebook to make, he describes the platform’s moral devolution. But every time he imagines the alternatives that more competition would create, he muses about kinder, gentler platforms — platforms with fewer ads, more privacy, less attention hacking.

But look around. Twitter assessed the competition and went algorithmic, creating a space so toxic the company is now trying to understand how “healthy conversations” work. YouTube ran the numbers and built an algorithm that’s become a powerful force for radicalization. Instagram became attractive to Facebook precisely because it’s so good at being addictive. Tumblr turned out to be so reliant on porn that Pornhub is considering a bid to buy the flailing business. Pinterest, well, Pinterest seems okay. For now.

Perhaps more competition in the social media space would lead to better alternatives. But perhaps it would do what it’s done so far: lead to yet fiercer wars for our attention and data, which would incentivize yet more unethical modes of capturing it.

Klein’s piece nails it. Facebook is the way it is not because of the lack of competition but because of the competition. Regulation could probably help but letting a thousand social network flowers bloom is what’s gotten us into this mess in the first place.


A few more links from the week:

LG’s new roll-up TV looks amazing

LG just announced this 4K TV, which can roll itself into a box when it’s not being used. I love that we are at the dawn of TVs that are actually starting have aesthetic considerations as part of their design.

The big questions for me are whether a rolled up TV can look as good as a non-rolled up one, and how durable the rolling mechanism will be. Will it wear out over time? Either way, the price will probably be prohibitively expensive for many years. But we’ll see…

All the best TVs I didn’t buy

I was hoping to snag a nice TV this Black Friday to upgrade from my current (discontinued) Panasonic 50″ plasma television. This Panasonic was one of the first things I bought when I first moved to Seattle many years ago and it’s served me well for both movies and videogames. Plasmas aren’t sleek and they eventually became commercially unviable, but their image quality is still great, even compared to what we have today.

The majority of TVs out there right now are LED and OLED screens (plus QLED, if you’re into that sort of thing). In looking for an upgrade, I wanted a TV that met the following conditions:

  • Significantly larger than my current TV (65″ and up)
  • Superior image quality to my current TV
  • Less than $1000

Turns out it was difficult to find a television that met all of these conditions. While OLED and high-quality LED prices for great TVs continue to decline, they still aren’t all that cheap.

I spent a lot of time researching which models would be best for my needs (Digital Trends and RTings were invaluable resources), so I thought I’d share some of my findings. Here are the TVs I seriously considered this Black Friday/Cyber Monday. I’ve linked to the 65″ models.:

TCL 6-series [Amazon, Best Buy]: This budget TV offers some great bang for your buck. It also features a Roku OS, which is super easy to use and contains lots of great services built in from the start. Unfortunately it’s been plagued by inconsistent panel quality, which produces clearly visible vertical bands in some models. Even at $800 for the 65″ model, I just couldn’t trust that this would deliver a better image quality than my current device.

Vizio P-Series [Amazon, Best Buy]: Vizio’s P-series delivers some great image quality, with some sophisticated full array local dimming. On the downside, these TVs have an OS that is very sluggish and difficult to use. On net, though, I actually wanted to buy one of these for about $900 but my local Best Buy ran out before I could pull the trigger. There’s also a P-Series Quantum that offers some advantages over the P-Series, but it is significantly more expensive and difficult to find in stock anywhere.

Sony X900F [Amazon, Best Buy]: Overall, a great TV with a responsive OS that’s well-reviewed (it also looked great on the Best Buy display wall) but its biggest downside is price. At around $1600 for a 65″ version, you’re getting up into OLED territory. And if you’re going to spend that much, why not just go all the way?

LG C8 [Amazon, Best Buy]: LG produces the best OLED panels in the industry, so it’s no surprise that their 8 series is considered the holy grail of OLED TVs. OLEDs produce some of the most gorgeous images available to consumers today, although I am nervous that I would experience screen burn-in while playing videogames. But the biggest downside is this TV is still pretty expensive. As of this writing, a 65″ C8 is still $2600. That’s just too high of a threshold for me, especially for a product that will likely be significantly cheaper in a year or two. Still, I’ll be saving up my ducats for this one and hoping that a killer deal eventually comes through.


Other TVs I considered not buying: I thought about getting the Samsung NU8000, which was also on sale this weekend,but having owned Samsungs at other times in my life I’ve been pretty unimpressed with their performance in dark rooms and their viewing angles, and it didn’t seem like the Nu8000 did a particularly great job of solving either of these issues. Samsungs are also still relatively expensive, given what you get.

The Vizio E-Series also seemed really appealing on a price level, but it doesn’t have as advanced local dimming as the P-Series and I wasn’t convinced that it would deliver better image quality than my existing Panasonic plasma.

Conclusion: There are a ton of great TVs out there, but I think I’m going to have to wait a little while longer before ones I want drop to a price that I consider to be palatable.

Am I missing any obvious solutions? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

Pocket iOS App Review (with Listening/Text to Speech Feature)

Between my podcasts, my blog/newsletter, and my social feeds, I do a lot of reading online to keep up with what’s going on online. For years I’ve used apps like Pocket and Instapaper on iOS to save articles for later reading offline. I use both because it’s nice to have a backup of all the stuff I’m saving, and often if an article doesn’t format correctly in one app it looks fine in the other.

But recently, Pocket added a listening feature that’s made me use the app much more heavily. It uses Amazon Polly to create a listenable text-to-speech version of every article you’ve saved. This means you can now listen to saved articles instead of being forced to read them.

As a result, I’ve now been consuming articles at a much higher rate than before. There are many contexts where it’s easier and more acceptable to be listening to something rather than reading it, and this app makes things easier in those contexts.

As great as this is, there are a few things I wish they’d improve:

  • It’s currently not possible (or at least not obviously possible) how to make a custom audio playlist with articles you’ve saved. This would be a cool feature to add in the future.
  • I wish I had the ability to choose which voice I wanted to read the article. On Android, I believe this is already a feature.
  • My most desired feature is the ability to start consuming an article in one format, and then resume it later in another. For instance, sometimes I’ll be reading an article via text on a bus, then need to get off at my stop. It would be great to switch to audio right then. Currently the app does not allow you to resume right where you left off.

You can check out Pocket at getpocket.com.

 

Vlogging Virginia with an iPhone XS Max

It’s a rare thing to have your movie screened and to be able to host a Q&A about it at an Alamo Drafthouse, so I decided to use my iPhone XS Max to try to capture my recent experience in Virginia. I wanted to see how the new smartphone held up to as a vlogging camera, especially without any of the other accoutrements I’d typically need to shoot something like this (e.g. external recorder, gimbal, etc.).

In making this, I developed a much greater appreciation of what it takes to shoot a good vlog (iJustine makes it look totally effortless). In particular, I don’t think I shoot enough b-roll to transition from location to location. I also just generally didn’t have enough coverage — I tried to make this as a one-man band, but there are definitely a few moments that could’ve benefited from alternate angles. Overall, I optimized for enjoying the evening rather than shooting as much as possible, and unfortunately I think that definitely shows in the final product.

That said, how did the iPhone XS Max fare? Not too bad. I think when you have a decent amount of light (e.g. outdoor), it’s a fantastic vlogging camera. The image is solid and it gives you decent normalized stereo audio. But in low light conditions and in most indoor situations, the phone’s camera jacks up the ISO and provides some pretty aggressive noise reduction. There’s lots of detail loss and the colors and skin tones don’t look great (See: how this camera is really different than the old one). Without a camera app that gives you manual control of the settings, it can even be difficult to use with a decent light — just compare the first and last shot of the above video.

For this specific situation, the XS Max worked out great. I could travel light and shoot quickly. But if I wanted something more professional looking and sounding, I’d definitely go with something with a larger sensor like an Sony RX100, Sony A6000-series, or a Fuji X-T-series, coupled with an external recorder. It makes a difference, particularly if you’re viewing the video on anything bigger than a mobile device.


Apple announces new iPhones

This week, Apple announced the iPhones XR, XS, and XS Max.

The names of these devices are widely regarded as terrible. I think they were conceived and executed by Heath Ledger’s version of The Joker. How does Apple, the most valuable tech company in the world by market cap, expect to brand its flagship phone with two letters, the first of which is pronounced as a Roman numeral, and the second of which is pronounced as an actual letter? What are the rules anymore??

(That said I will say that the benefit of branding one device as the “XS Max” does distinguish it from being a “Plus” in previous years, where larger devices actually got better/more features. The new XS and XS Max only differ in screen size and nothing else).

As for the devices themselves, I’m really not sure if I’m going to upgrade from my iPhone 8 Plus. The screen looks great and the features are fine. But I’m still not sure if I want to make the transition to Face ID with all those new gestures — I still like to swipe up to get Control Center from the bottom of the screen, thank you very much — and the price of the new XS Max (the device I’d likely want to get) is punishing, starting at $1100 and going all the way to $1450.

At that cost, I now have to choose between getting one of the most advanced APS-C stills/video cameras ever made, or buying an iPhone that’ll probably make me want to upgrade again a year from now. It makes it a much more tricky decision.

Here are some interesting takes on this week’s announcement:

Vimeo pivots towards being a tech company

Sara Fischer, writing for Axios:

Vimeo, the 14-year-old video service that started as a platform for indie filmmakers, is changing its business to focus on selling software tools to its community of millions of social creators, instead of being a video viewing destination, its CEO said in an interview with Axios.

The pivot allows Vimeo to go after a less competitive social “SaaS” (software as a service) market that focuses on stock images and video, as opposed to the saturated video viewing market, which is dominated by massive tech companies investing billions in original content to win eyeballs.

I think this is a great business move that makes a lot of sense for Vimeo. That said, it does make me sad that YouTube no longer has even a single plausible competitor that’s investing in high-quality video. Competition generally makes all platforms better, and the Vimeo viewing experience is still a great one.

A brief review of Apple Airpods

I’ve been using Apple Airpods for the past week or so and I really enjoy them. I primarily got them so I could listen to podcasts while falling asleep without disturbing those around me. It can be difficult to do this with corded headphones, but the Airpods fit that extremely specific need very well.

Beyond that, here are a few pros and cons for the product.

Pros

  • The way they connect with iOS devices (using Apple’s proprietary W1 chip) is incredibly smooth. My bluetooth devices probably have about a 70-80% success rate when it comes to connecting seamlessly. Airpods have closer to a 90-95% success rate in this regard. To quote Steve Jobs, “it just works.”
  • Every component of Airpods feels like it was designed to delight you. The way the bluetooth connection just happens. The fun menus and their animations. The fact that you can program the Airpods to respond to touch commands, not to mention the fact that by default, they pause your music when you remove one of them from your ear. I’m a big fan of the whole product experience.
  • The case looks like a container of dental floss but inside it hides a battery that can charge the Airpods for up to 24 hours. The case can also give the Airpods 3 hours of battery life with only 15 minutes of charging. This effectively means that, even though the Airpods themselves only have 4-5 hours of battery life, I’ve never found the battery life to be a problem.
  • Apparently, the Airpods are extremely durable. In this absolutely insane video, the folks at EverythingApplePro put the Airpods through an increasingly outlandish series of punishing tests. The Airpods came out the other side working fine. Very impressive.
  • The sound is pretty good — better than Apple’s default earpods. However, there is no noise mitigation of outside sounds, so Airpods aren’t great to use in a vehicle or in transit.

Cons

  • At $160, they are very expensive for headphones that are only slightly above-average in terms of sound quality. You aren’t paying that price for the audio — you’re paying it for the convenience (side note: the ship time for these things is still several weeks. Crazy that you still can’t go into an Apple store and buy them easily).
  • Maybe one day these things will become fashionable, but for now, I do not find them stylish. I find them to be anti-style. I can’t help but feeling like I look like a doofus when I’m wearing them. I’m fortunate to work at a company where people don’t really care what you look like, but I still feel self-conscious every time I put them in.
  • I’ve never had an Airpod fall out of my ears, but they do have a very specific shape and if your ear isn’t suited to it then you are pretty much SOL. I have found that the Airpods get loose with even mild jostling, such as if I’m going on a jog or even just briskly walking across the street. Losing one of these in public would be a nightmare, so I find that I’m very nervous when I use them outdoors. Indoor usage is probably safest.

Overall, Airpods feel like the full realization of Apple’s utopian wireless future. I just wish Apple would license out their W1 tech so that all types of headphones and devices could enjoy this level of connectivity.