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by Brandon Butler
Let’s Clean the US First, Maybe? 8/7/2020

Sam Biddle with The Intercept, ‘The Filthy Hypocrisy of America’s “Clean” China-Free Internet’:

The State Department has a new vision for a “clean” internet, by which it means a China-free internet. This new ethno-exclusive network “is the Trump Administration’s comprehensive approach to guarding our citizens’ privacy and our companies’ most sensitive information,” by ensuring that China won’t be able to do a litany of subversive and violative things with technology that the U.S. and its allies have engaged in for years. As a policy document it’s nonsensical, but as a moral document, a piece of codified hypocrisy, it’s crystal clear: If there’s going to be a world-spanning surveillance state, it better be made in the USA.

The real question, even more than how could any of this practically be accomplished by State Department diktat, is: Why should anyone in the world take the initiative seriously? How can any network fondled for decades by American spy agencies be considered clean? The absolute gall of the United States in condemning “apps [that] threaten our privacy, proliferate viruses, and spread propaganda and disinformation” is just slightly too stunning to be laughable. Without exception, the United States engages in every one of these practices and violates every single one of these bullet pointed virtues of a Clean Internet. Where do we get off?

It’s pretty incredulous to say that the US government is protecting US citizens from China while the US government has — and likely continues to — spy on, hack, and compromise the data of US citizens.

But it’s not just US spy agencies attacking us:

It is the rare American citizen whose daily movements, habits, tastes, and desires aren’t surveilled around the clock by a constellation of for-profit firms whose names they will never know and whose interests they will rarely share.

Maybe this is why people don't seem worried by China and TikTok being a potential threat to their online safety and security — the US has been doing this for so long we’ve become apathetic.

Apple Continues “Protecting” Users from Facebook Gaming App 8/7/2020

Tom Warren for The Verge:

Facebook is joining Microsoft in condemning Apple’s App Store policies today. The social media company is launching its Facebook Gaming app for iOS — primarily an app used to watch streamers play video games — but has had to remove the app’s mini games feature to pass Apple’s strict App Store approval process. Facebook isn’t happy about the compromise.

“Unfortunately, we had to remove gameplay functionality entirely in order to get Apple’s approval on the standalone Facebook Gaming app — meaning iOS users have an inferior experience to those using Android,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer in a press statement given to The Verge. “We’re staying focused on building communities for the more than 380 million people who play games on Facebook every month — whether Apple allows it in a standalone app or not.”

If I was Facebook, I’d be angry, too.

The argument for siding with Apple here is the Xbox: Apple Arcade isn’t on the Xbox, the PlayStation Store isn’t on the Xbox, so why should Apple allow xCloud and Facebook Gaming apps on iOS?

Simple: when you buy an Xbox, you’re buying a gaming system that runs games designed for the system. Just like when you buy a Mac, you know Windows programs won’t run on it. But if Sony wanted to bring The Last of Us — a PlayStation exclusive title — to the Xbox, they easily could do so, and I bet Microsoft would welcome them with open arms. If fact, I don’t know of any rule that Xbox has that prevents Apple from launching Apple Arcade on their console.

The reason consoles don’t cross-pollinate is because exclusive titles translate to sales of the console, and then more sales of their games. If Sony sold all of their games on Xbox, they’d lose a lot of money. But again, I don’t know of any rule preventing Sony from doing so — except the sheer audacity of giving money to Microsoft.

For years now Apple has been billing the iPad as a gaming system that can also do school work and run Excel. It’s an all purpose computer running the most advanced operating system in the world. But Apple won’t allow it to run certain kinds of gaming apps. Apple isn’t reviewing all the movies on Netflix or all the songs on Spotify or all the books on Kindle or all the websites on Brave. But they need to check all the games — games which have already been rated by the ESRB — why? For content? To protect users? Or to ensure they’re getting their 30% cut of the game purchase?

You decide.

But there’s only one word that can describe how they treat gaming and non-gaming apps in the App Store: differently.

Apple, Claiming They Are “Protecting” Users, Bans xCloud and Stadia from App Store 8/6/2020

Nick Statt for The Verge:

Cloud gaming is shaping up to have a big moment on mobile starting next month with the launch of Microsoft’s xCloud service, but iOS users are getting left out. And now we know exactly why: Apple won’t allow those products, because of strict App Store guidelines that make cloud services like xCloud and its competitor, Google Stadia, effectively impossible to operate on the iPhone.

But Apple has finally come out and said, in a statement to Business Insider, that these kinds of cloud services are in violation of App Store guidelines and cannot, in their current forms, ever exist on iOS. The primary reason: they offer access to apps Apple can’t individually review.

So, let me get this straight. Apple doesn’t feel the need to review every movie on Netflix or Disney+, or every game streamed on Twitch, but does need to review every game streamed on xCloud or Stadia.

Why are games being treated differently from movies or TV shows? What is Apple trying to “protect” consumers from, exactly?

This sounds a lot like Apple is saying “if a game were to offer in-app purchases, we wouldn’t get our 30% cut for doing nothing.” Every time Apple denies someone from being on the App Store, they just sound like the mob trying to squeeze more money out of a shop owner.

Apple:

In addition to the App Store, developers can choose to reach all iPhone and iPad users over the web through Safari and other browsers on the App Store.

Apple is very aware that you can’t play streamed games and use attached controllers on a mobile web browser. The APIs aren’t there. It’s really insulting they use this line. I’m looking forward to the day when Apple is required to allow 3rd party app stores on the iPhone and actually compete for business (and not “compete” like suggesting an email app be released on the PlayStation) (and not side-loading apps, either). I’m guessing that day will be here sooner rather than later.

Trumps Bans (Transactions with) TikTok 8/6/2020

Catherine Shu for TechCrunch:

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Thursday banning transactions with ByteDance, the parent company of popular app TikTok . The White House also announced that he signed a similar order banning transactions with Tencent-owned WeChat, a messaging app that is ubiquitous in China, but has a much smaller presence than TikTok in the United States, where it is used mainly by members of the Chinese diaspora. Both orders will take effect in 45 days.

Matthew Panzarino on Twitter:

Would you be shocked if the president did not even understand what he was signing here? Scope. Methodology. Ramifications. Yeah me neither.

Half of the hot esports industry including valorant, fortnite, league of legends and a ton of other gaming firms just got nut shot by el pres and I highly doubt that was on the list of desired effects.

Tencent spends an enormous amount of money in the valley, hollywood and music. Tencent pictures has 3 Sony movies coming including Monster Hunter and a little Paramount movie called Top Gun: Maverick. Is money earned there included in this? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

China Might Lose TikTok, But the Real Fight’s Just Starting 8/5/2020

The big story today at David Pierce’s Source Code, ‘China might lose TikTok, but the real fight’s just starting’:

ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming is furious. As negotiations continue between TikTok, Trump and Microsoft, Zhang told his employees that "this is not their goal, or even what they want. Their real objective is to achieve a comprehensive ban." Zhang also disagreed with the CFIUS decision that ByteDance has to sell TikTok U.S., saying that the company has "always firmly protected the security of users’ data, the platform’s independence and transparency."

China’s state-run media took things even further. "The U.S. administration’s bullying of Chinese tech companies stems from data being the new source of wealth and its zero-sum vision of ’American first,’" read an editorial in the China Daily, accompanied by a truly extraordinary picture you really need to see.

The editorial also called Trump’s move on TikTok a "theft" and a "smash and grab" and vowed it had "plenty of ways to respond."

On the one hand, I imagine it must sound pretty bad to all of China that the US is just forcing TikTok out of a Chinese company’s hands; on the other hand, the Chinese government is almost certainly using TikTok as a data harvesting tool against American citizens, and I think it’s right for the Trump Administration to act. (How they’re acting, of course, is another story.)

And Yiming has every right to be furious, but I think he’s furious at the wrong government. China makes it very difficult to trust them: they have massive surveillance, censorship, and human rights violations. If ByteDance was located in South Korea, France, or even Hong Kong, this would be a very different story.

There are a lot of American companies that can’t do business in China because of Chinese laws and censorship; Chinese companies used to have very few restrictions on doing business in the US. This is changing, and with Trump and Xi in control (for now), it’s like Pierce says, “the real fight’s just starting.”

LEGO UX Design 8/4/2020

George Cave:

Piloting an ocean exploration ship or Martian research shuttle is serious business. Let’s hope the control panel is up to scratch. Two studs wide and angled at 45°, the ubiquitous “2x2 decorated slope” is a LEGO minifigure’s interface to the world.

These iconic, low-resolution designs are the perfect tool to learn the basics of physical interface design. Armed with 52 different bricks, let’s see what they can teach us about the design, layout and organisation of complex interfaces.

Welcome to the world of LEGO UX design.

This whole post is some of the geekiest, funniest design talk I’ve read in a while. Whenever I opened a new LEGO set as a kid, the first thing I did was look for the bricks with the controls and other printed designs.

Disney’s Q3 2020 is Bad, No One Surprised 8/4/2020

Steven Zeitchik for The Washington Post:

The company revealed that as a result of the coronavirus pandemic it took in just $11.8 billion in revenue and $1 billion in operating income in the three-month period that ended in June, the height of lockdowns in the country. The numbers are a significant drop from the same period a year ago, when it generated $20.25 billion in revenue and $4 billion in operating income, among the worst slides of the modern era.

The earnings report for the fiscal third-quarter gave numeric form to what had been the sense of many in the entertainment and financial communities: Disney, once the high-flying giant of Hollywood, has been brought low by the virus, its creations often unable to be produced or consumed.

Not a surprise. But Disney will survive the pandemic.

Theme parks saw a plummet from $6.58 billion to $983 million, a plunge of 85 percent. No American or European park was open in the quarter, while parks in Shanghai and Hong Kong re-opened only midway during the period.

Equally concerning for Disney have been the few rays of theme-park light since the quarter ended. The company re-opened Disney World in Florida last month to begin rebuilding its revenue pipeline. But chief financial officer Christine McCarthy acknowledged the move has not panned out as hoped.

“The upside we’re seeing is less than we originally expected given the surge of covid-19 in Florida," she told analysts.

Disney chief executive Bob Chapek said that the park has experienced a “higher-than-expected level of cancellations” as people decide not to travel to Orlando because of the virus.

So at least some people in this country aren’t complete idiots. Good, I was beginning to seriously wonder. I’m not sure why Disney World is still open; I guess making something is better than nothing on theme parks, although whatever small amount they’re making in Florida doesn’t seem worth the risk to guests and cast members.

Disney Announces Mulan is Skipping Theaters as a $30 Disney+ Rental 8/4/2020

Adam Vary for Variety:

In another major blow to movie theaters, Disney announced “Mulan” will forgo its planned theatrical release. Instead, the live-action remake is premiering on Disney Plus on Sept. 4 for a premium rental price.

The company believes that the release of the action epic will help drive subscribers while serving as a valuable test case to determine how much of their hard-earned cash customers are willing to part with in order to watch a movie that was originally intended to debut exclusively in cinemas.

Unlike the rest of the content available on Disney Plus, “Mulan” won’t be available directly to subscribers. Consumers in the U.S. and other territories will have to pay $29.99 to rent the movie on top of the streaming service’s monthly subscription fee of $6.99. In markets where Disney Plus isn’t available, “Mulan” will play in cinemas.

An interesting price. You are already paying $7 (sans any bundles or deals) for Disney+, and now you’re being asked to pay an additional $30. (Feels like being back in the parks, amiright?)

For a family of four with a nice home theater setup, this is a great deal at $9.25 for each “ticket” — but the math starts to look bad as the family size decreases. A couple is paying $18.50 — or the price of a very fancy movie theater tickets, but still less than a night out at the theater with sodas, popcorn, and/or candy. Someone watching alone, for instance, is paying the full $37. Ouch.

I guess your interest in paying $37 for a movie rental — and however you intend to divide the price — depends n your interest in seeing a live action remake of Mulan. I’m not sure I’d want to spend that on this particular movie (the live action remakes have, so far, been a disappointment across the board for me) but for something like Avengers Endgame or even Spider-Man 3: Stuck at Home (I think that’s a working title) I’d probably pay it to avoid the theater, crowds, and — oh, right — death. For those of us skipping this particular $30 rental, Mulan should release on Disney+ for everyone else about 90 days later.

I like that Disney CEO Bob Chapek is using the old “It’s just a one time thing” line. Surrrre it is, Bob. And I’m going to have just one churro the next time I’m at Disneyland. Surrrre. I’m curious if Universal and AMC’s announcement last week had anything to do with Disney having the confidence to push this forward, and if AMC and the theaters are getting a cut of the thirty bucks. (Sounds unlikely this go-around.)

Also, what’s with this “another blow to theaters” bit? The theaters are not getting an audience anytime soon, and it’s not because a couple of films — with Mulan arguably the biggest to date — are skipping the cinema. Disney could have said “we’re releasing Mulan in theaters on September 4th,” and the headline on September 5th would have still been “In another blow to theaters, nobody shows up to see Mulan”. Theaters are suffering for one reason, and one reason alone: an out of control pandemic is killing thousands of people each day in this country, and the government is too incompetent to do anything about it. Variety, get your reporting straight.

Phil Schiller Advances to Apple Fellow 8/4/2020

From the Apple Newsroom:

Apple today announced that Phil Schiller will become an Apple Fellow, continuing a storied career that began at Apple in 1987. In this role, which reports to Apple CEO Tim Cook, Schiller will continue to lead the App Store and Apple Events. Greg (Joz) Joswiak, a longtime leader within the Product Marketing organization, will join the executive team as senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing. [...]

“It has been a dream come true for me to work at Apple, on so many products I love, with all of these great friends — Steve, Tim, and so many more,” said Schiller. “I first started at Apple when I was 27, this year I turned 60 and it is time for some planned changes in my life. I’ll keep working here as long as they will have me, I bleed six colors, but I also want to make some time in the years ahead for my family, friends, and a few personal projects I care deeply about.”

Square Enix’s Avengers Game Gives PlayStation Players Exclusive Access to Spidey, Everyone Else Gets an Exclusive Middle Finger 8/3/2020

Chaim Gartenberg for The Verge:

Square Enix’s Avengers game will arrive this fall, and it’ll bring back console-exclusive content in a big way: the company announced that PlayStation players will get exclusive access to a playable Spider-Man character sometime in 2021.

Frankly, that sucks. It’s not clear whether Sony paid Square Enix extra for the exclusive character or if this is simply an extension of the movie rights that Sony has long since held to the character. But the fact is that PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 owners will be able to get access to a major piece of content for the upcoming game that players on Xbox, PC, or Stadia won’t.

Wow. Sucks is an understatement. My interest in this game has completely evaporated by this news. My gaming platform of choice is the PC, as I’d rather have a mouse and keyboard for control. But knowing there’s a playable Spidey in the game that I won’t get access to really hurts. This is a stupid, greedy move by Sony and Marvel, and it’s only going to anger everyone not on a PS4 or PS5. Make Hawkeye or another minor hero the PS Exclusive, but everyone wants — and should get to play as — Spider-Man. Like my headline says, this is just a big middle finger to any Marvel fan not on a Sony console — there’s no other way to read this news.

Why Microsoft Wants, and Might Be a Good Home for, TikTok 8/3/2020

Lots of good discussion today on Microsoft and TikTok, but I’m linking to David Pierce at Potocol:

The whole thing looks like Microsoft me-tooing its way into another industry, almost as if it saw the other four tech giants go in front of Congress and somehow decided that'd be a fun place to be. But the more I talk to people, the more I think Microsoft may actually have something here.

Pierce has a good argument in favor of Microsoft being a good home to TikTok (see Minecraft) so I’m hopeful this works out.

In related news, The New York Times reports:

Speaking at the White House on Monday, Mr. Trump said that TikTok would shut down on Sept. 15 unless Microsoft or another company purchased it. He added that the U.S. Treasury Department would need to receive a lot of money in return for the deal, without explaining how that would work.

Emphasis mine. Also, what?

Tim Cook Forgets About Shareware, $99 Developer Fees in App Store Revisionist History 7/31/2020

Rob Pegoraro for Forbes, ‘What Tim Cook Left Out Of His Version Of App Store History’:

“When the App Store was created, the prevailing distribution options available to software developers at the time did not work well,” Cook says. “Brick-and-mortar stores charged high fees and had limited reach. Physical media like CDs had to be shipped and were hard to update.” [...]

“Tim Cook is misleading: when the App Store was created, developers were selling and distributing apps over the web, and it worked wonderfully,” emailed Brent Simmons, a longtime Mac and iOS developer of such apps as NetNewsWire. “We started selling over the web in the mid ’90s.”

I have fond memories of shareware, which not only allowed me, as a youth on the early Internet, to try new software but also occasionally pay for incredibly affordable applications and games. Ambrosia Software was the recipient of a few of my weekly allowances for games like Apeiron and Escape Velocity. Then there was BBEdit, Graphic Converter, and Fetch, which allowed me to make my first website and upload it to the Internet.

Even today, downloading from the web is still a huge part of how many Mac users get applications for their computer, from a third-party web browser to games and utilities which can’t work within Apple’s strict sandboxing rules. I know for a fact many Apple employees on Macs use software not from the Mac App Store. The Mac App Store is the last place I search for software, and it seems a little shameful for Apple to pretend like this massive and long-lasting community of developers — many who still pay $99/year to be part of the Apple Developer Program — simply doesn’t exist. When Apple says they’ve never made a cent from 84% of their iOS devs, the big asterisk is *Not including the annual $99 developer fee, and the cost of buying a Mac to develop on, and if you’re selling iOS software, probably a few iOS devices to test on, too. Apple knows very well they make money from 100% of their developers, and they are very aware of how software distribution on the Internet worked before the App Store — and lying to Congress is not a good look for Tim Cook and the most valuable company in the world.

Nvidia Eyeing ARM 7/31/2020

Chaim Gartenberg at The Verge, ‘Nvidia is reportedly in ‘advanced talks’ to buy ARM for more than $32 billion’:

SoftBank has been rumored to be exploring a sale of ARM — the British chip designer that powers nearly every major mobile processor from companies like Qualcomm, Apple, Samsung, and Huawei — and now, it might have found a buyer. Nvidia is reportedly in “advanced talks” to buy ARM in a deal worth over $32 billion, according to Bloomberg.

Nvidia is said to be the only company that’s involved in concrete discussions with SoftBank for the purchase at this time, and a deal could arrive “in the next few weeks,” although nothing is finalized yet. If the deal does go through, it would be one of the largest deals ever in the computer chip business and would likely draw intense regulatory scrutiny.

Apple and Nvidia have a complicated history.

Microsoft Eyeing TikTok 7/31/2020

Mike Isaac and Ana Swanson for The New York Times, ‘Microsoft Said to Be in Talks to Buy TikTok, as Trump Weighs Curtailing App’:

Microsoft is in talks to acquire TikTok, the Chinese-owned video app, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions, as President Trump said on Friday that he was considering taking steps that would effectively ban the app from the United States.

Microsoft does not have a good record of managing social media.

Big Tech Hearing Overview 7/30/2020

Robin Givhan for The Washington Post has a good high level overview of the questions the Democrats and Republics asked the big tech CEOs during yesterday’s hearing:

But, mostly, the Democrats focused on big questions about the power these companies have amassed, even if they really weren’t all that interested in hearing the executives’ answers. The Republicans were far more concerned about Google and how it’s unfair to conservatives. Google suppresses conservative voices. Google sends Republicans’ fundraising emails to spam. Google is anti-American.

And then there’s this colorful bit describing questioning from Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio):

Wednesday afternoon, he was yelling about whether Google’s Pichai would promise that the search engine would not do anything to support Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. Pichai looked perplexed. Jordan wanted him to affirm that Google wouldn’t help former vice president Biden. Pichai tried to explain that the search engine is nonpartisan. Jordan badgered. Finally, Pichai said Google wouldn’t support either candidate. Jordan didn’t seem particularly satisfied, but his time was up, and the baton was handed to Scanlon, who announced that she’d be getting back to questions about antitrust issues and leave the conspiracy theories behind.

And then Jordan had a fit because conservatives have feelings, too. So he started yelling again. And he was told to put on his mask. And, well, oh, boy, it was as childish as it all sounds, and one couldn’t help but wonder whether some of our representatives are drinking the hand sanitizer instead of using it for good hygiene.

It was both amusing and painful to watch at times, like when Zuckerberg was being asked if Facebook uses cookies — of course it does, but the Congresswoman asking had it in her mind that the use of cookies can only be for nefarious purposes and wasn’t interested in Zuckerberg’s explanations.

I also recommend Kyle Daly and Ashley Gold’s reporting for Axios, where they’ve broken down the questions by CEO.

It’s easy to watch the hearing and feel bad for the CEOs — they’re asked multilayered questions that take three minutes to ask and are given ten seconds to answer, and are often cut off quickly. Even the prepared closing remarks said (I’m paraphrasing here) that the hearing has clearly established the companies are too big and can’t be trusted. The subcommittee wasn’t interested in getting the facts, they were interested in airing for the public the dirty laundry of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

And that’s exactly what the purpose of the hearing was — the subcommittee had hours of damning facts, emails, and testimony against these companies. The bottom line is if Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google had not spent the last decade+ abusing their size and influence, they wouldn’t be here getting publicly attacked by the US Government.

The only question left is: what happens now?

Apple Q3 2020 Results, iPhone Delayed A Few Weeks 7/30/2020

Apple today announced their Q3 2020 results, and once again it was a record quarter for Apple. You can read more on the results from Jason Snell at Six Colors, if the finances interest you.

One comment from Apple CFO Luca Maestri on the earnings call has stood out to just about everyone: The next iPhone will be delayed “a few weeks,” likely to October or very early November.

Not a massive surprise given global events of 2020, but the news is making headlines.

AMC Makes Money by Doing Nothing 7/28/2020

Brent Lang and Rebecca Rubin for Variety, ‘Universal, AMC Theatres Forge Historic Deal Allowing Theatrical Releases to Debut on Premium VOD Early’:

Universal Pictures and AMC Theatres have put aside a bitter feud and signed a multi-year agreement that will allow the studio’s films to premiere on premium video on-demand within three weeks of their theatrical debuts.

The pact, sure to send shockwaves throughout the exhibition industry, has the potential to reshape the ways that movies are marketed and distributed. Rival studios are likely to begin pushing for exhibitors to grant them more flexibility when it comes to determining when and how their theatrical releases can make their way onto home entertainment platforms.

Financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed. However, in a statement, AMC’s CEO Adam Aron said the company will “share in these new revenue streams,” which means that it will get a cut of any money made on these digital rentals. Universal only has the ability to put its movies on premium on-demand, meaning the rentals that go for roughly $20 a pop. It cannot sell films or rent them for lower on-demand fees, in the $3 to $6 range, until three months after they debut in cinemas.

Interesting deal by these two former BFFs — somehow AMC, desperate for any amount of money, has found a way to make money by not doing anything at all. When AMC threatened to ban Universal films from their theaters — theaters which were (and still are) closed across the country — I assumed it was an idle threat and they’d just quietly “forget” the whole kerfuffle. But it sounds like Universal saw this as an opportunity to change the rules of the game: although they’re losing a little in early Premium VOD rentals, they’re potentially making more in the long run by having a second platform to release their films on just 17 days after the theaters get their release.

$20 is a high price to pay for a home rental unless you have the home theater setup to make the experience great, and I suspect those who have invested in that setup will likely not pause at the high ticket price. Hell, when you divide that ticket up between a pair of adults or a family of four, that $20 is cheaper than four tickets at the discount mall theater. I can’t wait to see how other studios respond to the deal.

We Could Have, But 7/27/2020

Jason Kottke, quoting Andy Slavitt on Medium, ‘We Can Eliminate Covid-19 if We Want To’:

But don’t tell me the United States can’t take action if we want to. And we can’t face the families of 150,000 people who didn’t have to die and tell them this had to happen. And I think it’s why our national political leaders won’t go near these families and the grieving process.

The good news — and it is good news — is we are always four to six weeks from being able to do what countries around the world have done.

I know this article is supposed to be hopeful and optimistic, but people have known what to do about Covid-19 since at least March. Instead the United States has not done it and indeed has done mostly the opposite. The “we” that are supposed to decide to lead this effort won’t because they don’t want to put in the work (it’s easier to blame the virus, Democrats, and China), they don’t want to just give money to people to stay home (a huge no-no for Republicans), and they don’t care that much about who is dying (urbanites, low-income, the elderly, Black & brown people).

The simple answer is we could have eliminated this virus back in March: pay people to stay home, shut down everything, close freeways, give everyone medicare, offer temporary debt and rent forgiveness, require masks, and six weeks later: no virus. We could have had a fairly normal summer of movies and theme parks and beaches, instead we absolutely had to go out to bars and hairsalons and in the process allowed 150,000 people to die, and many more will follow. How did the US get to be so egocentric and self-absorbed that we can’t each make a small personal sacrifice for the betterment of our neighbors?

COVID-19 Outbreak Just Four Days into Baseball Season 7/27/2020

Kate Cox for Are Technica is reporting that just four days into the delayed and shortened MLB season there’s already a massive outbreak of COVID-19 on the Miami Marlin’s roster:

The Marlins were supposed to host the Baltimore Orioles tonight for their home opener in Miami. But as ESPN’s Jeff Passan was first to report, the game has been cancelled after at least 14 Miami players and staff have tested positive for COVID-19. […]

The outbreak among the Marlins, however, throws into doubt whether the shortened season, absence of crowds, and isolation protocol are enough to keep players safe.

League officials are reportedly planning an emergency meeting today to discuss the potential for continuing the shortened 60-day season.

Cancel the whole season. Sports should be fun and safe. A sports game is not worth risking the lives of people playing it.

Tenet Releasing Internationally First, US Second 7/27/2020

Christopher Nolan is getting his wish: Rebecca Rubin at Variety is reporting that Tenet will be theatrically released internationally on August 26th, and then in US “select cities” on September 3rd:

The studio announced Monday that “Tenet” is launching in theaters at the end of August in 70 overseas territories, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United Kingdom. At this time, it’s unclear what parts of the United States will play the film. The studio does not have plans yet to release “Tenet” in China.

It’ll be interesting to follow-up on these “select cities” two weeks later and check on the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

The Last of Us Part II Review 7/25/2020 The Last of Us Part II Review Header

Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us Part II follow.

There’s a point in The Last of Us Part II where Ellie needs a woman to provide her with information about Abby, the person she’s been pursuing across the city of Seattle. The woman is choking on spores in a hallway and will be dead in a matter of hours, but she tells Ellie she won’t give up her friend.

Ellie says, “I can make it quick, or I can make it so much worse.”

A metal pipe is clenched in Ellie’s hand, but the woman is defiant. At this point, the camera cuts to Ellie’s face; anger flashes in her eyes, her breathing intensifies, she grits her teeth. The game prompts the player to press Square. When the player pushes the button, Ellie strikes the woman with the pipe. The prompt to press Square returns, and so the player again pushes the button. Ellie strikes the woman a second time with the pipe. Ellie’s face is splattered with the woman’s blood, and the Square button prompt returns once more. The player presses the button, Ellie swings the pipe, a scream, and the game cuts to black.

It’s a violent, terrible way to die, and it’s a violent, terrible way to kill someone. Even in a video game.

And I didn’t want to press Square. There are many points in this game where I don’t want to do what Ellie is doing. Ellie does terrible things to every person she encounters in this game, including her friends, but especially her enemies.

Sequels are never what we want. We think we want a part two, but as is so often the case, the sequel is a disappointment. And we’re partially to blame for that disappointment: we spend months and years speculating and envisioning all the ways we want that sequel to play out, the character arcs, the settings, the major and minor story points. But in The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog takes Ellie into such a grim and cruel place that I struggled to find anything redeeming about the character or story by the end of the game. This wasn’t the version of Ellie I wanted to spend my nights and weekends with, and I’m upset by this terrible journey Ellie’s been on and everything that’s been taken from her.

This was not the same girl from just four years ago who I traveled across the country with, stopping to hear bad jokes and watching her watch grazing giraffes in awe and wonder. In the final flashback of the game, of the night prior to the inciting incident, Ellie tells Joel she wished he hadn't saved her in that Salt Lake City hospital, so that a vaccine could be developed and her life — and death — could have purpose. Days later she leaves for Seattle to enact revenge. Ellie's blind rage is a character flaw so great that it devours the character and everything good along with it. If anything, Ellie's character arc changes from a girl with depth and desires and feelings and needs into an undeveloped comic book villain from the 60's, just another cookie-cutter bad guy. The problem with the main character in a video game being a cookie-cutter villain is it makes for a boring main character.

Working through this game was a slog; the game felt tedious and overly long. The constant gray skies and rain didn’t help the exhaustion. Part of that exhaustion is replaying the game as Abby, Ellie’s new antagonist. Abby could be likable if not for her own story of revenge (take a number). The player assumes control of Abby immediately after she kills Ellie’s friend, and it is a jarring and difficult transition. Naughty Dog puts too much stock in hollow stereotypes and cheap sympathy to force Abby and her friends to be likable. Despite Abby’s quarter collecting and fear of heights, I don’t learn enough about her to ever form an honest, unbiased opinion of her. The game tells the player Abby is a layered, flawed character, but it never gives the player an opportunity to discover that for themselves. Even less is learned about her stereotypical friends, who come off as nauseatingly charming right from the start and are cannon fodder for Ellie’s rampage. They help to reveal nothing about Abby, and then they die.

By the time the player is back in control of Ellie, for the extended epilogue of an already too long game, Ellie’s setting out to slaughter more dudes. By the time Ellie can finally confront Abby, they’re both weak and nearly dead. And here’s the final spoiler of the game, so last warning — Ellie doesn’t kill Abby. Ellie has killed dozens of people by now — militia and cultists and biker dudes — to get to Abby, but she can’t take just one more life. I laughed out loud at the absurdity of the situation. With Abby pinned underwater, she just lets her go. Ellie finally returns home only to find she’s lost everything.

Visually, there’s nothing wrong with this game. Cutscenes are rendered beautifully and the detail of the models — even on an eight year old console — are some of the best I’ve seen on a PS4. Eyes look wet and life-like, and faces carry so much expression that it’s easy to see actors Ashley Johnson and Laura Bailey in their performances of Ellie and Abby, respectively.

Gameplay hasn’t changed at all from the original, with enemy encounters feeling mostly reused from the previous game. Crouch, sneak, press Triangle. You either enjoy it or you don't.

The Last of Us Part II is a story of revenge and pain and anger, but not a very good one. While it’s a visual masterpiece, the gameplay is a decade old, the AI is still dumb, and the encounters become redundant slaughters. Part II‘s story is a trite storytelling formula that’s too tedious, too shallow, and too abrasive. It’s not just a sequel I didn’t want to play; it’s also a bad sequel.

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet “Will Definitely be a Theatrical Release” 7/23/2020

Julia Alexander for The Verge:

As film studio executives struggle to determine what movies should be held for a theatrical release and what titles can become streaming exclusives, AT&T CEO John Stankey reaffirmed that Tenet will absolutely go to theaters. [...]

Tenet is a movie that was “engineered” for theaters, Stankey said in an interview with CNBC. Since it “needs to show up that way,” Warner Bros. isn’t looking to turn it into a premium video-on-demand or HBO Max exclusive. Especially considering that Tenet in a pre-coronavirus world would likely do well at the global box office. Dunkirk and Interstellar grossed $527 and $677 million at the box office, respectively. Then there’s also Nolan’s desire to seemingly have Tenet be the movie that reopens theaters, by which the studio is trying to abide.

“Certainly, Christopher would like it to be validated,” Stankey said. “That’s how he wants that piece of work that he’s done to be seen by movie goers, and that’s why it’s going to be something that shows up in a theater.”

Warner Bros. is in a tight spot. On the one hand, they’ve got the exhibition industry on the edge of their seats waiting for a firm, committed release date for Tenet. They’ve also got Nolan insisting on a theatrical release, and Nolan is a person they will bend over backwards to please.

On the other hand, the United States is both geographically a huge, out of control petri dish of COVID-19 and a huge source of box office revenue.

The US has had five months to deal with this virus, and for five months we’ve been shitting the bed. The year will be over in another five months. Based on how the government has handled the pandemic so far, does anyone honestly believe it’ll be safe to sit in a room with a few hundred strangers at any point between now and December 31st? Mr. Stankey? Mr. Nolan? Mr. Aron?

Also, I just want to call out the absurd bullshit of a statement like “Tenet is a movie that was “engineered” for theaters”, which is just absolutely ridiculous and some profoundly dumb marketing. There is nothing special about a movie theater these days, except paying an absurd amount of money for a Coke and tiny box of M&Ms while half the audience is playing on their cell phones during the film. Nolan & Co. really need to visit a modern multiplex with modern audiences.

Intel Delays 7nm CPUs Again 7/23/2020

Paul Alcorn for Tom’s Hardware, ‘Intel's 7nm is Broken, Company Announces Delay Until 2022, 2023’:

Intel announced today in its Q2 2020 earnings release that it has now delayed the rollout of its 7nm CPUs by six months relative to its previously-planned release date, undoubtedly resulting in wide-ranging delays to the company's roadmaps. Intel's press release also says that yields for its 7nm process are now twelve months behind the company's internal targets, meaning the company isn't currently on track to produce its 7nm process in an economically viable way. The company now says its 7nm CPUs will not debut on the market until late 2022 or early 2023.

Ooph. Just in case anyone was still wondering if Apple moving to their own ARM-based silicon is a neccessary transition, this one’s for you.

Apple Launches Security Research Device Program 7/23/2020
Zack Whittaker for TechCrunch:

Last year at the Black Hat security conference, Apple’s head of security Ivan Krstic told a crowd of security researchers that it would give its most-trusted researchers a “special” iPhone with unprecedented access to the the device’s underbelly, making it easier to find and report security vulnerabilities that Apple can fix in what it called the iOS Security Research Device program.

Starting today, the company will start loaning these special research iPhones to skilled and vetted researchers that meet the program’s eligibility.

These research iPhones will come with specific, custom-built iOS software with features that ordinary iPhones don’t have, like SSH access and a root shell to run custom commands with the highest access to the software, and debugging tools that make it easier for security researchers to run their code and better understand what’s going on under the surface.

TechCrunch’s headline is misleading for the average user: “Hacker”, in this sense, is a security researcher who’s job is to find critical vulerablities in siftware and hardware and report them to the devleoper. This isn’t a device for the “criminal hacker” sort, but their headline will probably get more clicks than “Apple Launches Security Research Device Program” and that’s what matters, right?

Bad headlines aside, this is a really important move for Apple to make. Security through obscurity doesn’t work, and researchers need this kind of access to find critical vulnerabilities in the devices. This only serves the make the iPhones in our pockets even more secure than they already are.

One Thousand Americans Died Today from COVID-19 7/21/2020

Rashaan Ayesh at Axios, ‘U.S. reports over 1,000 daily coronavirus deaths for first time since May’:

The U.S. reported more than 1,000 coronavirus-related deaths on Tuesday for the first time since May 29, according to the COVID-19 Tracking Project.

All you need is half a brain to understand the US is totally failing to contain this.

Twitter Flushes the Toilet 7/21/2020

Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny for NBC News, ‘Twitter bans 7,000 QAnon accounts, limits 150,000 others as part of broad crackdown’:

Twitter announced Tuesday that it has begun taking sweeping actions to limit the reach of QAnon content, banning many of the conspiracy theory's followers because of problems with harassment and misinformation.

Twitter will stop recommending accounts and content related to QAnon, including material in email and follow recommendations, and it will take steps to limit circulation of content in features like trends and search. The action will affect about 150,000 accounts, said a spokesperson, who asked to remain unnamed because of concerns about the targeted harassment of social media employees.

From Twitter:

We’ve been clear that we will take strong enforcement action on behavior that has the potential to lead to offline harm. In line with this approach, this week we are taking further action on so-called ‘QAnon’ activity across the service.

We will permanently suspend accounts Tweeting about these topics that we know are engaged in violations of our multi-account policy, coordinating abuse around individual victims, or are attempting to evade a previous suspension — something we’ve seen more of in recent weeks.

In addition, we will:

1: No longer serve content and accounts associated with QAnon in Trends and recommendations

2: Work to ensure we’re not highlighting this activity in search and conversations

3: Block URLs associated with QAnon from being shared on Twitter

Meanwhile, at Facebook:

Crickets.

On Releasing Tenet Online 7/20/2020

Chaim Gartenberg for The Verge, ‘Christopher Nolan should release Tenet online’:

A lot of that anticipation is coming from Christopher Nolan himself. The director has been insistent on not only debuting Tenet in a theater, but using it to herald the return of theatrical release in general, “to show faith in the form and solidarity with exhibitors.” Nolan previously romanticized the theater experience as “a vital part of social life” that only a communal viewing can provide, and he wants Tenet to be the film that will help save it.

Put simply, this attitude is dangerous and will put lives at risk. While there’s still a lot we don’t know about how COVID-19 spreads, it’s apparent that spending long amounts of time indoors in close proximity with other people is a major contributing factor. And movie theaters — with close-together seats, circulating air conditioning, guests removing masks to munch on popcorn, and lengthy films — seem to fit that bill perfectly. Everything we know about COVID-19 tells us that the kind of wide-release cultural event Nolan wants will lead to more cases, more hospitalizations, and more deaths.

Gartenberg goes on to argue for the release of Tenet online, and I couldn’t agree more with his arguments.

I definitely wonder when the last time Nolan set foot in a public movie theater to watch a movie with a general audience. People on their cell phones, people talking to each other, someone coughing, people having to leave to use the restroom and miss a chunk of the movie, children crying, someone nearby smelling like pot. There’s nothing romantic about the theater experience of the early 21st century, and I suspect Nolan is recalling his childhood days at the local cinema in Highgate, the very expensive London suburb where he grew up in the 70’s. The social and cultural norms for going to the cinema in Highgate, England in the 70’s are likely very different from those of, say, Bakersfield, California, or Palm Bay, Florida of today. Nolan is remembering a time when people didn’t have a maximum attention span of 8 minutes, and a loud, bright distraction in their pocket. And a time when people were just fucking respectful to each other in the cinema.

I have friends with beautiful home theaters. Surround sound, 70-inch 4K screens with HDR or projection systems on 100+ inch screens, comfy couches, Cokes and popcorn that cost a reasonable amount of money from the grocery store, and a pause button. My own system is fairly minimal as I’m in a bit of a nomad phase now, but it works for me. I would rather watch Tenet at home even before this pandemic, and it will be a long time before I’m willing to return to the theater.

There is a matter of money, and there is discussion that Tenet can’t earn back it’s budget on a home streaming release, but I disagree completely. The right marketing push, on Instagram and TikTok as well as traditional TV commercials, will get people to rent the film, even at $20 a pop. And with the pandemic, you’re likely only getting two or four people watching that $20 rental at once. That’s the biggest issue, because normally a $15 theater ticket admits one, and a couple or group would be buying multiple tickets. There’s no getting around that, unless Warner sells a ridiculously overpriced single download. Even at $20 I can see people balking for a “home” rental, so maybe offer a free rental or digital download of Inception, a ten year old film by now, if they spend the $20 on the digital ticket for Tenet. Warner stopped making money on Inception a long time ago, so give it away to get people in front of Tenet.

But Warner needs to face facts here: American theater box offices are going to be dismal for years. The pandemic is not going away. American leadership is nonexistent and COVID-19 is getting worse, not better. Releasing a movie in theaters anytime this year is both irresponsible and no way profitable. Either Warner sits on this movie until 2024, or they offer a home release. The theater release is dead.

Of course, I’ve said all of this before, but like Gartenberg, I can’t understand why Nolan is so adamant on pushing audiences back into theaters at a time when the pandemic is again on the rise. I understand being proud of your work and wanting an audience to enjoy it, but an audience in the safety of their home can still enjoy this film just as much as if they were in a theater. And of course, I’d argue even more so.

Tenet Delayed Again, New Date "Imminent" 7/20/2020

Rebecca Rubin for Variety:

Warner Bros. has removed “Tenet” from its release calendar, delivering a big blow on the exhibition industry at a time when movie theaters had hoped to peg their re-opening to the late summer debut of Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller.

Though necessary given the mass uncertainty over when cinemas across the globe can safely reopen, the decision further complicates Hollywood’s already bumpy plan to revive moviegoing. “Tenet” was originally scheduled to debut on July 17 but was pushed back twice until Aug. 12. It’s unclear when it will now welcome audiences, but the studio plans to share a new release date “imminently.”

If Tenet is released in theaters before next year, it’s too soon. The only way Tenet sees a 2020 release is on iTunes.

NYT: Inside Trump’s Failure: The Rush to Abandon Leadership Role on the Virus 7/19/2020

Outstanding reporting from Michael D. Shear, Noah Weiland, Eric Lipton, Maggie Haberman and David E. Sanger for The New York Times on the Trump Administration’s lack of leadership and failure in dealing with this deadly pandemic:

Over a critical period beginning in mid-April, President Trump and his team convinced themselves that the outbreak was fading, that they had given state governments all the resources they needed to contain its remaining “embers” and that it was time to ease up on the lockdown.

In doing so, he was ignoring warnings that the numbers would continue to drop only if social distancing was kept in place, rushing instead to restart the economy and tend to his battered re-election hopes. [...]

Mr. Trump’s bet that the crisis would fade away proved wrong. But an examination of the shift in April and its aftermath shows that the approach he embraced was not just a misjudgment. Instead, it was a deliberate strategy that he would stick doggedly to as evidence mounted that, in the absence of strong leadership from the White House, the virus would continue to infect and kill large numbers of Americans.

Trump has failed this country at every step of the way in dealing with this pandemic. If he wants to abandon his role in leading the country during this pandemic, he should resign from the presidency.

"No mask, no entry. Is that clear enough? That seems pretty clear, right?" 7/18/2020

From The Washington Post's Voices from the Pandemic, as told to Eli Saslow by Lori Wagoner, a retail clerk with a sad, disheartening tale of asking people to simply wear a mask when shopping in her store:

Maybe some people took it as a challenge. I don’t know. But it kept on escalating. Most of our customers are supportive and respectful about it — maybe 90, 95 percent. But on weekends, we get dozens of people from Charlotte or Raleigh who come to visit their boats. Those places are virus hot spots, and they come here to have a good time and maybe they’re drinking. Some of them would see our signs, open the front door, and just yell: “F--- masks. F--- you.” Or they would walk in, refuse to wear a mask and then dump their merchandise all over the counter. I had a guy come in with no mask and a pistol on his hip and stare me down. I had a guy who took his T-shirt off and put it over his mouth so I could see his whole stomach. “There. A mask. Are you happy?” I had a lady who tried to tape a pamphlet on the front window about the ADA mask exemption, which is a totally fake thing. It’s a conspiracy theory, but it’s become popular here. She kept saying we were discriminating against people with disabilities. What? Why? How? None of what they say sounds logical. I can’t make sense of half the names they call me. They say I’m uneducated — uh, that’s kind of ironic. They say I’m a sheep. I’ve been brainwashed. I’m pushing government propaganda. I’m suffocating them. I’m a part of the deep state. I’m an agent for the World Health Organization. “How do you like your muzzle?” “Is this going to become sharia law?” “Are you prepping us to wear burqas?” “What’s next? Mind control?”

Threatening a woman making $10/hour with a gun because she asked you to wear a mask during a pandemic. Explain the patriotism behind that one.

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