Ongoing Twitter binfire destroys site’s USP and demands people pay to create content for the platform

I remember years ago a loved one getting all excited about a letter they were sent about a book publishing deal. Someone was offering to publish their book. All they needed was a bit of money. Or, rather, a lot of money. It made said loved one sad, but a swift intervention and explanation of the scam that is ‘vanity publishing’ stopped a costly mistake. Twitter now apparently exists in broadly the same space.

Making good on an unsaid promise to destroy everything that was once good about the service, Musk has ordered his underlings to simultaneously destroy Twitter’s USP and discover how many gullible users it has. This all comes by way of a new character limit that will be exclusive to subscription tier Twitter Blue.

Having apparently fired all the copywriters, Twitter announced in a block of text that would make even the sternest production editor cry that you’ll now be able to send up to 4000 characters in a single tweet – if you pay to do so. By default, the tweet will collapse to the standard 280 and add a ‘show more’ link – perhaps the sole sensible decision Twitter has made since Musk’s takeover.

The broader picture here, though, is nonsensical. Twitter was a place where ideas spread, but not necessarily where they lived. People typically linked to longform content elsewhere. And, yes, although some folks on the site craft threads comprising a dizzying number of linked tweets, those communications have a distinct rhythm of their own, and are shareable on an individual basis.

4000 characters upends what makes Twitter unique, and welding it to Twitter Blue suggests Twitter thinks content creators should pay Twitter for the privilege of posting original content on to Twitter’s platform – a platform currently run by a man who showcases a flagrant disregard for rules, and presumably can be trusted with IP roughly as far as you can throw a Tesla. That sounds like a pretty crappy deal to me.

February 9, 2023. Read more in: Opinions, Technology

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Exploring the implications and existential terror of AI’s impact on creative industries

Last summer, I wrote a piece for Stuff magazine: AI is primed to eat the world – but it’s dining on what people already created. Within, I explored the then largely nascent world of consumer-accessible creative AI, digging into the visuals and text output these systems could crank out in seconds.

Since then, things have moved on. Not a day goes by now where we don’t see someone mulling over a bleak future for creative industries, as AI becomes smarter – and in some cases, more human – in terms of what it can produce.

Political commentator and columnist Ian Dunt today mulled on Twitter: “About 50% of the time I get excited with AI stuff, 40% I get worried about my career/the general economic implications and 10% entering a state of baffled existential terror.” Marina Evans then responded: “It feels like it’s being used to replace humans in exactly the wrong way.”

I have a lot of sympathy for both viewpoints. It is exciting to see what AI tech can do, but also deeply worrying thinking about how AI can now be used for everything from political disinformation to revenge porn. And in the creative space, I do find it sad that certain people are rubbing their hands with glee, considering AI primarily to be a cost-saving shortcut that removes swathes of paid creative types entirely.

Ideally, AI should be used to offload routine work so humans can do more interesting, useful and creative things. This is happening in, for example, machine learning operations. You often see AI employed in largely automated systems, poring though data at extreme speeds, and then alerting humans to handle key decision points. Without AI, these systems would be unviable or even impossible.

But AI has created a ticking time bomb within certain creative industries. There are already publications using AI to write routine articles – only sometimes bringing in human editors to make corrections. The internet is awash with AI-generated art and pseudo-photography, making illustrators fear for their very livelihoods while AI systems eat these people’s entire creative histories to use as the basis of their own output. There are exceptions – AI is good at dealing with mechanics. In video, it can sometimes sort a rough edit to give an editor a head start. And even in the aforementioned creative spaces, it has value as a trigger for inspiration.

The bigger concern is when higher-ups determine that mediocre/derivative output (which is where a lot of AI is right now) will do. But that misses the snag that when you run out of data to feed into the system, you get a kind of endless remix of grey. And it also glosses over what happens when humans are removed entirely or where key data is missing in the first place. AI can currently write, say, a review of a software product that a layman would read and think is OK. But an expert would spot errors. For an app, whatever. But for something critically important? That’s not good.

I’m not sure where things will go from here, but I’m not optimistic. Today, we exist in a strange space, where people are wowed by AI or hand-wave it away. The Ryan Reynolds ChatGPT Mint ad is a case in point. Reynolds offers good acting – at least, I hope that’s the case because what the AI comes up with is box-ticking mediocrity. However, if everyone does this again in a year, what will the AI come up with by then?

If nothing else, there’s one lesson we all need to learn – yet again – when it comes to disruptive technology: things never quite shake out as you might expect. Technology – and the world in general – is unpredictable. And AI may well turn out to be the most disruptive technology we will see in our lifetimes.

January 15, 2023. Read more in: Opinions, Technology

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iCloud sync is randomly breaking

A week or so ago, Cloud Battery stopped working for me. The app syncs device battery status across iCloud, providing alerts across all your devices — handy when one needs charging. Having just updated a bunch of them, I figured this was a bug in a nice but not critical piece of indie software and thought nothing more of it.

Then I needed to use Transloader for something. It worked – at first. But then it started throwing up sync errors. On iPhone, the app noted these were 503s. If you’re not familiar with arcane error codes, this one states a server is not able to handle a request. Since the ‘server’ in this case is iCloud, that was a concern. I switched two devices to a spare account and Transloader worked fine. I finished my work, albeit a day behind.

Then Soulver failed — suddenly and very badly. I needed to restart my iMac so was shutting down all my apps. Soulver threw up a permissions error. A week of input was wiped out in an instant. This was a shock on multiple fronts: in part because of the data loss, but also because Soulver is one of the most robust apps I use. It had never failed before.

I swapped messages with the app’s creator, who was mortified. I sent grabs of my iCloud Drive folder where Soulver’s ‘sheetbook’ was stored, which now had an exciting and mysterious new file. I moved the sheetbook to local storage and had had no further problems. I tested the old one several times on iCloud, and it went wrong half a dozen times. The culprit was clearly iCloud.

I griped about this on Twitter. It turned out, I wasn’t alone. Developer Becky Hansmeyer kicked off a thread about the issue, which ended up starring, among others, Paul Haddad (Tapbots), Adam Overholtzer (Cheatsheet), and Quentin Zervaas (Streaks). A quick look on Reddit had already suggested to me that the problem had in fact been around for months, rather than days; terrifyingly, Zervaas said he’d seen this issue “on and off since May 2021”, and his own app only currently fully works on some of his Apple IDs.

On and off since May 2021. For iCloud sync. For an issue that at best causes somewhat random sync failure for the apps that differentiate Apple’s devices and that at worst can cause catastrophic and unrecoverable data loss. That is not good enough.

Several devs noted Apple is at least “aware” of the problem, but it’s apparently been rumbling on for eight months now, and is, as Zevaas suggests “seemingly quite random”. That’s just what everyone — users and developers alike — want to hear about the reliability (or lack thereof) of such a critical service. My question now — having apparently decided at the worst possible time to bin Dropbox and go all-in on Apple’s equivalent — is whether I can trust iCloud sync and iCloud Drive at all.

An hour or so after I posted this piece, some of the Mac website giants stomped on in with their takes. You can read two below:

Update: Zervaas said on 25 Jan he saw a big drop-off in 503 errors. For now (26 Jan), Cloud Battery and Transloader are working for me again. (I haven’t moved my Soulver sheetbook back to iCloud though. It’s going to take a lot for me to trust iCloud Drive with that again.)

January 24, 2022. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology


You can do real work on an iPad, so stop claiming otherwise

Now iPadOS 15 has appeared, it’s a crushing disappointment to those people who enjoy being crushingly disappointed when Apple doesn’t do precisely what they want. And it’s not like I don’t have frustrations with the iPad myself. For years, I’ve banged on about wanting full external display support, the dream being a fully modular computing experience that could ‘be’ tablet, laptop or desktop within relevant contexts. But as I wrote for Wired, this is not Apple’s strategy. The company isn’t seeking to replace laptops with iPads, but to “finesse the transition between its platforms, with all your hardware and software working together”.

In a sense, iPad still exists where it was originally positioned, between a smartphone and a laptop. It’s just this definition has expanded from the device’s originally fairly limited scope. But even from day one, it was a superior device for some tasks—without that, it wouldn’t have had any reason to exist. Today, the ambition of app creators has helped the platform evolve into a primary device for a wider range of users, including some illustrators and video editors on the move.

It’s with this in mind that I find increasing frustration in commentators who should know better slamming the iPad for not having “real apps” to do “real work”. It’s like the conversation hasn’t moved on in a decade, despite the platform and its capabilities being far beyond what was possible with the original iPad. And while I do understand some people are irked they can’t get Final Cut on their iPad, I’ve also watched video folks scythe through 4K edits on LumaFusion. Elsewhere, I’ve talked with visual designers using Affinity apps and illustrators working with Procreate. Writers? Plenty tap away on an iPad with the likes of Ulysses and Scrivener. Musicians? There are tons of superb synths, virtual instruments and DAWs for the system, many of which work brilliantly, and most of which cost a fraction of their desktop counterparts or equivalents.

Could Apple do more? Sure. But is iPad somehow deficient? I don’t think so, unless your requirements are very specific—or your real aim is screaming that iPad is doomed at the top of your lungs, despite all evidence to the contrary.

July 8, 2021. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology


For Apple and others, flexibility is the vital component to the future happiness of workers

A tale in three parts:

  • Apple states as of September that employees will be back to the office at least three days per week, and will get the option of two additional remote-work weeks per year (The Verge)
  • Apple employees respond, asking Apple to be more flexible and account for individuals who might want to work from home on a permanent basis (The Verge)
  • Daring Fireball writes a surprisingly callous response, slamming the Apple employee letter and inferring those people “aren’t a good fit for Apple”

I’ve primarily worked for home for 20 years now. It has pros and cons. I’ve been fortunate to be there for most of the big moments in my child’s life, not least her first steps. If I’d been on a 9–5, I’d have missed those—and so much more. But I also recognise that for some people, being around others in an office environment is how they thrive. Also, some jobs can only be done in that way.

However, many jobs can be performed well in a distributed team environment. Apple itself has shown that, in all the many things it’s achieved during a pandemic. At this point, my take—as someone who is very aware of being in a fairly privileged position—is that flexibility is the way forward.

The Daring Fireball take is, for me, colossally bad. From a pure commentary standpoint, it’s distasteful for an individual working however they like to hand-wave away requests for flexibility from people who have discovered how they can do revolutionary work and not miss out on things like family moments (while avoiding soul-sapping commutes).

But the same is true in reverse. Some people thrive on in-person interaction. So denying that (as some other companies are looking to do) is equally problematic. Companies will have to figure out new ways of working that are flexible and smart enough to cater for alternate ways of thinking.

For Apple specifically, the company used to say ‘think different’. It could leverage that approach and lead a new way of how major corporations work rather than being so prescriptive. And while Apple shifting to three days in/two days out is a big cultural shift, it has an opportunity to do more. If your company has been by every measure a massive success during the pandemic, then it has space to be more radical, not less, regarding workers.

June 5, 2021. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology


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