Because the Truth is Less Striking

When I asked if the U.S. media had a political bias, a friend of mine suggested that the media’s bias for narrative is bigger than anything to do with politics. Nearly a decade later, I find this observation holds true and is particularly noticeable during this year’s election between the former Senator and Secretary of State, and the ruthless business man.

Take the last decade as an example. After the largest terrorist attack committed on US soil, the former spent her time in the senate largely working to help those devastated, then as Secretary of State, she helped oversee the assassination of its mastermind while maintaining a delicate relationship with the strategic ally he was found in. Meanwhile the latter became a reality TV personality and likely committed fraud.

By any measure of ethics or qualification, the former blows the latter away, and yet the US media has largely underplayed this clear contrast to instead emphasize and exaggerate whatever similarity they can find. They elevate a crook to a contender and consternate over whether or not the only one actually qualified is a crook.

Take this excellent piece by Matthew Yglesias, criticizing an AP exposé that suggests the qualified candidate used her position and influence as US Secretary to fund her family’s charity. Matt doesn’t challenge that there was a conflict of interest, rather the AP’s suggestion that it resulted in unethical behavior.

For example, the AP story leads with:

More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation. It’s an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.

To which Matt points out:

To generate the 154 figure, the AP excluded from the denominator all employees of any government, whether US or foreign. Then when designing social media collateral, it just left out that part, because the truth is less striking and shareable.

Matt goes further, deconstructing the AP’s specific examples as banal coincidences, ultimately adding:

The AP put a lot of work into this project. And it couldn’t come up with anything that looks worse than helping a Nobel Prize winner, raising money to finance AIDS education, and doing an introduction for the chair of the Kennedy Center. It’s kind of surprising.

So why did the highly regarded AP go to such length to muddy this election’s most qualified candidate as unethical even after their exhaustive investigation found nothing to back that claim? Matt suggests it’s publication bias – that the exciting hypothesis of an unethical frontrunner got attention while the boring lack of evidence didn’t. While there might be an element of that, I think the AP and other news organizations are more deliberately promoting an ongoing narrative they can continue to derive headlines from throughout the election.

“Well regarded and highly qualified candidate still beating the snot out of crooked TV personality” does not make for interesting ongoing coverage, so instead we’re getting “qualified candidate struggles with allegations while known crook tells it like it is.”

Voice Recognition Beats Humans at Typing

From Aarti Shahani at NPR:

Researchers set up a competition, pitting a Baidu program called Deep Speech 2 against 32 humans, ages 19 to 32. The humans took turns saying and then typing short phrases into an iPhone — like “buckle up for safety” and “wear a crown with many jewels” and “this person is a disaster.” They found the voice recognition software was three times faster…

…”People probably play with Siri and find oh, it didn’t give them the right answer. So they don’t think to use speech as a way to do their text messaging or their email or what not,” [Stanford computer scientist James Landay] says. “Using speech for those things is now working really well.”

This reflects my own experience where I often find myself in situations where using Siri’s speech-to-text is the best way to quickly reply to a message, and while Siri’s still hit or miss with personal assistance tasks, the misses are almost never because he/she failed to capture what I said.

The Death of Car Ownership?

Commenting on a post on Daring Fireball where John Gruber asserted that design will matter even with self driving cars, Brian Fagioli on Twitter argued that:

self driving cars will lead to death of car ownership. Outward appearance won’t matter. Just comfort and amenities.

John responded with the following update to his original post.

If you disagree — if you think the outward appearance of a self-driving car doesn’t matter, only the comfort and amenities of the interior — I think you’re being shortsighted. If all self-driving cars are ungainly-looking, they’ll still sell. Uber is already buying ungainly-looking self-driving cars. But what happens when a company starts selling good-looking self-driving cars? Cars are status symbols — even cars you don’t own. What else explains the existence of black town cars? A lot of people used to argue that the exterior design of personal computers didn’t matter, either — only the functionality. No one argues that anymore.

Looking at airlines and hotels, I can’t see people investing the same amount of status into cars they don’t actually own. Sure first class is way better than coach and people enjoy the status of being in first class, but I don’t think anyone is tying their ego to a slightly wider pleathor seat. Also black town cars are only nice compared to Taxis, which is a pretty low bar.

That said, I will challenge Brian’s other assumption – that car ownership will die. Sure it might decline, but so long as there are suburbs, there will be rush hour commuters. I don’t see rush hour easily being taken over by autonomous Uber-like services for two reasons:

  1. It will be difficult to justify a enough cars necessary to support the just 1-3 hours relevant to commuters.
  2. Uber and their ilk want to get rid of the human element so who’s going to clean these cars, and who or what decides when cars should be cleaned? Folks may be willing to risk the occasional gross experience to get home safely or go to the airport, but I doubt they would be willing to take that risk twice daily.

My prediction is commuters will buy or lease cars even after they become autonomous, and just like now the cars they buy will continue to be not just a status symbol, but also an intimate reflection of their personality and taste.

And who knows, if autonomous cars makes commuting suck less, even more people might move out to the burbs and we could see an increase of car ownership.

Tell Me if You Heard This One Before

From Mark Gurman, at Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. has hit roadblocks in making major changes that would connect its Watch to cellular networks and make it less dependent on the iPhone, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The company still plans to announce new watch models this fall boasting improvements to health tracking.

I suspect Gurman is spot on with his prediction that the next Apple Watch won’t have cellular, but did this tone that inspired such words as “roadblock” and “delay” also come from his sources? I’m doubtful given Apple’s long1 history2 of prioritizing battery life over cellular capabilities. My bet is the decision to not include cellular capabilities in this year’s model happened long before this latest batch of rumors.

  1. What Engadget had to say about the orignal iPhone in 2007: “The fact is, there’s only a very short list of properly groundbreaking technologies in the iPhone (multi-touch input), and a very long list of things users are already upset about not having in a $600 cellphone (3G, GPS, A2DP, MMS, physical keyboard, etc.).” 

  2. What The Verge had to say about the iPhone 4s in 2011: “The lack of LTE, a larger display, or a new design may put off some buyers…” 

You Get What You Charge For

From Nick Heer at PixelEnvy:

Ads used to be beautiful because they had to be beautiful — if you’re a business paying thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for a full colour back-page ad, you’re going to want to make it the most memorable and compelling visual it can be.

A few years ago, a friend of mine who runs his own business significantly raised his rates. I asked him if it led to more demanding clients. He told me no, because the most demanding clients were often the ones who valued price over the work. Because the work was secondary, these clients were much more likely to not think things through, then come back with more demands, at which point they’d further waste everyones time trying to keep the price low. His higher prices not only increased his income, but they also freed him to take on more professional clients who valued professional work.

Funny how business economics works.

A Deal With the Devil

After yesterday’s post questioning Google’s commitment to open source Android, I found this piece Ars Technica published by J.M. Porup about yet another startup focusing on making Android more secure:

Copperhead OS, a two-man team based in Toronto, ships a hardened version of Android that aims to integrate Grsecurity and PaX into their distribution. Their OS also includes numerous security enhancements

I’ve been wondering – as Google keeps moving their support to proprietary alternatives while others in the open source community develop potentially competing solutions as part of the Open Android Source Project, at what point does the OS that ships with Google Play cease being “Android”? My assumption was that an OS that ran mostly on Google’s proprietary code couldn’t legitimately be called “Android”. Then I read this (emphasis mine):

Google’s power over OEMs—such as Samsung or Motorola, who manufacture and sell Android handsets—consists solely of the Android license and access to the Google Play Store.

Sure enough, I had forgotten that Google owns the Android name just as much as they own Google Play. From the AOSP Brand Guidelines:

The “Android” name, the Android logo, the “Google Play” brand, and other trademarks are property of Google Inc. and not part of the assets available through the Android Open Source Project.

“Sure you can use this for non-Google products, but good luck communicating an otherwise nameless project. Oh, and if your little not-Android-thing encroaches on our business in any way, we’ll walk and do our own proprietary thing, and that proprietary thing will still be called ‘Android’.”

Android isn’t a choice. It’s an ultimatum.

Lastly, I want to point out this bit of sentiment from the Ars piece, which Porup credits to Chris Soghoian of the ACLU:

Google did a deal with the devil for market share, says Soghoian, who has described the current parlous state of Android security as a human rights issue. By giving Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and wireless carriers control over the end-user experience, Google allowed handset manufacturers to find ways to differentiate their products, and wireless carriers to disable features they thought would threaten their business model.

Did Google do the deal with the devil or is it the other way around?

Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish

When news came that Amazon would start selling Android phones subsidized with ads on the lock screen, I quipped on Twitter by asking how long it would take Google to wrest control of the lock screen by making it part of the closed source Google Play. Now less than a month later, Ars Technica is reporting that Google will not only take control of the Android lock screen, but the whole System UI:

In Android, the System UI is a huge deal since it’s responsible for much of the base operating system. It handles the bottom navigation bar, the top status bar, the notification panel, Quick Settings, Recent Apps, the lock screen, the volume controls, and the power button long-press menu. The new Nexus devices are apparently going to replace the open source System UI with a proprietary APK called the “Google System UI.”

Carriers and handset makers’ inability and unwillingness to push updates of any sort, including those vital to their customers’ security, gives Google a very good reason to shift as much of Android to their control by any means possible, but migrating functionality to Play also effectively replaces open source Android with Google proprietary code. While it’s certainly reasonable to expect that Google’s applications and services like YouTube or GMail would remain proprietary, it seems open source Android functionality is increasingly being migrated to closed source for the sole strategic benefit of Google. Additionally, as functionality is added to Play, any open source counterpart in Android languishes without Google’s vast resources. Shouldn’t there be some push or expectation to keep generic functionality like the System Webview or UI as open source even after they transition to Google Play? Where is the blowback? This is the company that in 2010 said:

“If you believe in openness, if you believe in choice, if you believe in innovation from everyone, then welcome to Android”.

The lack of any significant protest even as large swaths of Android are increasingly replaced with Google’s own proprietary code suggests to me that a vast majority of Android users don’t see and never saw the value of open source. Google’s lack of interest to open source anything on Play further cements the idea that Android was never about openness and choice, but rather about adoption and marketshare.

“Not too many things like that.”

From Playing The Long Game Inside Tim Cook’s Apple by Rick Tetzeli, writing for Fast Company:

It’s entirely possible that Apple will never introduce a product as universally desired as the iPhone. That doesn’t mean it won’t continue to be a great company. “The iPhone entered a market that was the biggest on earth for electronic devices,” Cooks tells me, as we’re wrapping up our interview. “Why is that? It’s because eventually, everyone in the world will have one. There are not too many things like that.”

I’d argue it’s more likely than not that Apple, or any company, will never introduce a product as universally desired as the iPhone. I’ll go even farther and add that using the success of smartphones as any sort of bar to measure success is folly.

Digital Advertising verses Digital Ads

As some readers already know, I make my living working in ad tech. For those unfamiliar, ad tech is shorthand for the internet advertising industry. I suspect most outside the industry think internet advertising as strictly banner ads, but ad tech actually encompasses all advertising that is delivered via software over the internet. So for example, while NBC running a commercial on your local station does not typically involve ad tech, them running that same commercial on one of their websites or apps does. Given this example, a better term commonly used to frame the this industry is simply “digital advertising”. This is as opposed to the “traditional advertising” industries of print and broadcast. That said with traditional advertising shrinking, at some point any remaining print and broadcast activity will get relegated to the “other” category of an “Advertising” industry that will be synonymous with digital.

Outside of massive traffic when compared to traditional media, the benefits of digital advertising are many — better tools, better reach, better analytics, better inventory. Unfortunately these benefits have been tainted with fraud, ignorance, and a widespread lack of taste. The problems go all the way back to the start of digital advertising and one of its most basic concepts — the click-through.

Why Digital Advertising is Great

Imagine it’s the late 1990s and that you are a marketer working in the entertainment industry trying to create buzz around some new Rob Schneider movie. Obviously you have previews in theaters, print ads in magazines and newspapers, and commercials on television. You think you have all your bases covered, but then some asshole from the internet shows up and says you are missing out. Why? Because in all of those other places, the people exposed have only one outcome that inevitably leads them away from Rob Schneider. Previews and commercials end, and printed pages can only be turned. If you’re lucky, some will actually remember your otherwise forgettable movie exists just long enough to go see it. Now you’re told that advertising on the internet is different, that instead of moving on, people who are interested in your film can simply click on Rob Schneider’s face and be immediately brought to even more movie marketing material.

I would keep going with this little exercise, but it’d all be moot as your late 1990s marketer brain just exploded.

Never mind digital advertising is better. Never mind that all advertising will be digital. The idea that anyone can instantaneously get more information about something of interest is great regardless of whether that something of interest is an ad.

Why Digital Ads Suck

Not long after the idea of the click-through came the idea of tricking people into clicking ads via Punch the Monkey-esque1 scams. From there a long history of other scams and fraud have been pervasive in digital advertising. In my opinion though, Punch the Monkey is really just an outcome created by other factors in the industry. Let’s assume fraudsters gonna fraud wherever fraudulent gains can be had, so what makes digital advertising so ripe for defrauding?

Digital Ads Are Cheap

If you were a traditional big media company or publisher encountering the internet in 1997, your complete lack of understanding of what it was ultimately left you picking from a bento box of likely outcomes:

The internet is a(n)… …and we should respond by…
…hobby… …outsourcing to the same unknown company as our competitors.
…fad… …do as close to nothing as possible.
…enemy… …lawyer up
…free… …selling ad inventory at a discount.

Because a majority of those who would have had the most to gain failed to identify the internet as a huge and disruptive opportunity, inventory for digital advertising was immediately relegated as the “cheap” alternative rather than be taken as a serious part of the business.

Digital advertising being synonymous with cheap has had many consequences, but I would like to focus on just two:

  1. Because digital inventory has little-to-no value, the status quo is to show a bad ad before showing no ad. Always showing an ad means cheapening content to the level of the ads available instead of elevating ad inventory to the level of the content. This means even reputable publishers and media companies now try to make up revenue on volume via clickbait and listicles. Once you’re a site doing clickbait and listicles, it becomes much harder to call yourself reputable let alone command a higher price based on content.
  2. Lack of strategic investment means publishers have largely outsourced the technology to manage their ad inventory with minimal oversight. Most ads served actually have access to the page, meaning they can literally do anything the publisher can. Imagine if McDonalds let franchisees do whatever they wanted with only a lowest common denominator of requirements. Say what you will about Big Macs, but at least people in a pinch can rightfully trust McDonalds to be consistent and not give them food poisoning in way they can’t trust publishers to not infect their PC with some virus laced ad.

While scammy ads permeate all forms of media, they’re mostly harmless and usually relegated to less desirable inventory. Cheap digital ads means Punch the Monkey isn’t quarantined off to some dark corner of the internet, but instead can afford to land a spot on your favorite major publisher. And thanks to a general lack of oversight, it can also pop up a nice little survey asking you how great Punch the Monkey is, just like those actual brands advertising on that same page. This takes me to my next point.

Digital Ads Favor Data Over Taste

While click-throughs may be the greatest thing since sliced bread, measuring them has had some adverse affects. Don’t get me wrong. Data is perhaps the biggest benefit to digital advertising. Advertisers can optimize their campaigns from an assortment of metrics not available anywhere else that include click-throughs, interactions, video playback, reach, conversion and attribution, viewability… the list goes on and on. The problem isn’t data, but the emphasis on data at the exclusion of taste.

For example, consider those video ads that appear between paragraphs in an article. It’s a good bet that not a single person outside of the industry would have anything nice to say about these video ads. They disrupt the reader twice (on both expand and collapse) to deliver a message they didn’t ask for in a format incongruous to the content2. Most people in the industry I talk to don’t like them either, yet these video ads are thriving. Why? Three reasons:

  1. They’re cheap to make because they simply repurpose existing video made for broadcast.
  2. Video ads are more lucrative for publishers.
  3. They force engagement.

You may be thinking “how do these ads force engagement?” While different companies have different implementations of this type of ad, I strongly suspect some happily round up any event to an engagement. So in this case, the video expanding after the user scrolls could be considered a “user engagement”, the video auto-playing is considered a “video engagement”, and even the user closing the video could be considered another “user engagement”.3 So this ad that no one really likes is considered a top performer in the eyes of advertisers, who blinded by data inadvertently encourage publishers to further inflate their statistics with disruptive ads while sacrificing the remaining goodwill of their readership.

Just like Punch the Monkey.

Finally many data metrics, such as attribution and our friend, the click-through, primarily benefit direct advertising. Direct advertising refers to ads that want you to perform a specific action, like buy a movie ticket. This is as opposed to brand advertisers whose main goal is to generate awareness of a specific product, brand, or company. For example, Frito-Lay’s Superbowl ad isn’t to get you to run out and buy more Doritos in the middle of the big game, but rather to keep them top of mine so that you think “Doritos” the next time you’re feeling noshy. So while knowing which ads and media are driving more click-throughs and conversions is critical in direct advertising, these metrics shouldn’t really be a factor in brand advertising. More often than not though, they are, because we can measure these metrics just as easily for brand advertisers as we do for direct advertisers. So what’s the harm? In my opinion, this is a good example of when data has adverse affects. Now brand advertisers, spurred on by an industry touting the importance of data, are supplementing brand metrics such as reach and lift with clicks and attribution. But because branded ads aren’t designed to drive conversions, they don’t perform according to the data. I suspect this is just one reason why a vast majority of digital ads are direct4.

What’s Next

As I said at the top of this post, digital advertising is not only great, but the future. While this industry is full of smart people who are trying to make digital ads better, I am increasingly having a hard time seeing improvement happening without some turmoil. Whether change comes through evolution or revolution, better digital ads will require publishers beyond search companies and social companies to take more of an active role with their ads. Additionally, while data is a tentpole of digital advertising, more people in the industry need to look past data to start thinking about the types of digital ads that they themselves might actually click on and maybe even the types of digital ads that don’t need to be clicked at all.

  1. I am referring to a type of animated banner ad that poses as a mini-game that promises a reward (like 20 dollars) if the reader can click on(or “punch”) some moving target (like a monkey). The earliest reference to “Punch the Monkey” I could find was from 2000, but I am certain earlier versions exist. 

  2. I’d further wager that people are less effective at processing information that doesn’t match its surroundings. 

  3. There’s probably also another engagement for those who intended to close the ad, but mistakenly click through. 

  4. Another is that there are more cheap direct ads… lose belly fat… get low mortgage rates… punch the monkey. 

Ars Technica Reviews HP’s EliteBook Folio G1

The review is titled “HP’s EliteBook Folio G1 is the MacBook as it could’ve been“.

That’s not true of the 4K version of the laptop, which loses more than three hours of battery life in our test exclusively because of the screen (almost all the other components, including the CPU, were identical across models). It’s a very pretty display, but it might also be the difference between having a laptop that lasts all day on a cross-country flight and one that dies before you can get to the hotel.

Thin and light, fewer compromises

In some ways, the EliteBook Folio G1 feels like the MacBook that could’ve been, had Apple’s priorities been shuffled around just a little bit. It’s almost as small, almost as thin, and almost as light, but it’s got a keyboard that most of you will already be used to and a second USB Type-C port for added versatility. Those USB Type-C ports also provide Thunderbolt 3 support, so you have more bandwidth for external accessories if you want it. Apple’s laptop is better designed (and if you prefer OS X to Windows, it’s all moot anyway), but HP’s is perhaps more attuned to what current buyers (especially power users) want and need.

Neglecting to include battery life and screen quality alongside the other compromises is disingenuous.

Both HP and Apple are making sacrifices in order to be as thin and light as possible, and while their differing priorities are interesting, the results aren’t surprising. The HP has more/better ports while sacrificing either screen quality or battery life. The MacBook infamously only has one port, but offers a great screen and long battery life.

Hardware-wise, HP is selling you a thinner and lighter PC with the compromises and benefits of a PC, and Apple is selling you a Mac with the compromises and benefits of an iPad.

I have never been so onboard with the MacBook as I am after reading this review.