Apple Rules*, Flat vs. Threaded Discussions

Issue 11 of my newsletter – subscribe here

I spotted this ad on the tube recently, and it made me think about Apple’s unappreciated dominance over the lives of hundreds of millions of people:

600 free prints a year – what a deal! Clearly there must be a catch, and sure enough, there is a tiny asterisk next to “App!” I wasn’t able to see it from my side of the carriage, but there’s an even-tinier line of text right at the bottom of the ad that doubtless discloses just how much you’ll have to pay to get those 600 “free” prints.

This kind of chicanery is prohibited by Apple on its App Store. There are very strict rules about disclosure of payments, and in particular, of the auto-renewing subscriptions that so many developers (including my company) are so fond of, since it’s kind of the only way we can people to actually, you know, pay for a service these days.

How strict? Well, there is a very specific set of wording you must use to describe how subscriptions auto-renew. The text labels on the subscription buttons must be over a certain size. Prices must be the biggest element of text, so you can’t just say “FREE!*” as the tube ad does:

In the purchase flow, the amount that will be billed must be the most prominent pricing element in the layout. For example, an annual subscription should clearly display the total amount that will be billed upon purchase. While you may also present a breakdown price that the annual amount is equivalent to or a savings when compared to weekly or monthly subscriptions, these additional elements should be displayed in a subordinate position and size to the annual price. This ensures that users are not misled.

It’s all very consumer-friendly, so I honestly don’t have a big problem with the intent of Apple’s rules. But just consider what’s happening here – Apple dictates the precise way in which you design key parts of your app. That’s unusual, to say the least. It’d be like the London Underground dictating that you couldn’t design adverts with asterisks and tiny disclaimer text. Maybe they should? But maybe not.

If you don’t agree with Apple’s rules, well, you don’t need to be on their platform, right? It’s not like you have to make iOS apps, after all. Why, you can just… completely ignore the majority of the smartphone app revenue in the US and UK!

So that’s a big problem. Apple may not command the lion’s share of smartphone users as Google does, but in many markets, iOS users spend far more money on apps than Android users.

A bigger problem is that Apple breaks its own rules by not disclosing pricing and subscription terms; by using push notifications for marketing (third parties apps are prohibited from doing so); by immediately cutting off trial subscriptions rather than letting them run for their whole term; and so on. It matters because Apple is now competing directly against many of the companies whose apps it hosts and rules over, from Apple Music to Apple Arcade to Apple TV+ and Apple News.

Apple would claim it tries to be reasonable when reviewing third party apps, and I don’t doubt the motives of their review team. However, the mere chance that your app update could be rejected, or worse yet, removed, whether for good reasons or just out of a misunderstanding? It’s literally terrifying for people whose livelihoods depend on Apple’s whims – like me.

All of this has introduced a chilling effect on third party app developers. I’ve seen many otherwise outspoken developers genuinely scared of voicing even mild criticism of Apple on private forums and chat rooms, let alone on Twitter or podcasts. They really think they could be blacklisted for criticising Apple, and while I am 100% certain that isn’t the case – because I and others have been far more critical in public and have never experienced any blowback – I understand their fear.

Now, as far as benevolent dictators go, you could do much worse than Apple. I’ve always had pleasant dealings with them in person. But no company should have that kind of complete and terrible power over tens of thousands of companies and hundreds of millions of users. We don’t allow it in the “real” world and so we shouldn’t allow it in the digital world.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the merits of flat versus threaded discussions online. Flat discussions are like those on Metafilter and other old-school forums where each reply follows directly from the one above it, while threaded discussions are like what you see on Reddit where replies can be in response to other specific replies, creating multiple “threads” branches off from one another.

For a long time, I believed flat discussions were generally superior to threaded ones. They helped promote coherent debate rather than encouraging groups of users to spin off on wild tangents, never to be seen again. In other words, Metafilter good, Reddit bad.

But I’ll confess – I’m spending a lot more time on Reddit than Metafilter these days (although I’m making a concerted effort to change!) That imbalance is partly because Reddit, having far more users than Metafilter, can cater towards more specific interests. There’s just no way I can get all the latest news about Edinburgh or Apple on Metafilter, that’s not what the site was designed for.

There’s another reason, though: I don’t think that flat discussions, as typically implemented by forums like Discourse or Metafilter, are working well for communities where there is serious disagreement about how discussions should unfold.

I’m being really unspecific here because I don’t just mean “communities with political disagreements”, I mean “communities where some people like making jokey comments and others dislike them” and also “…where some like tangents and others hate them.”

Flat discussions makes problems stick out more because everyone is forced to read them. In flat discussions, it’s possible for one or two people to completely dominate a discussion, or for irrelevant, misinformed, or extreme opinions to derail a conversation because it’s just impossible to ignore them; you’re literally posting right underneath them. In threaded forums, these sidetracks would end up downvoted and quarantined in their own threads.

Metafilter and other “flat” forums are trying to preserve a unitary community where we hope that just by talking enough, people can come to an agreement about how to run a conversation. Reddit assumes that’s impossible.

Watching

🎞️ Dr. Strangeglove. Fantastically funny and tightly-written masterpiece.

Reading

📖 Ways of Seeing by John Berger. A classic, which means you’ve probably heard most of its arguments in other books by now, but still very much worth reading. It doesn’t waste your time.

📖 The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. Don’t be put off by the misleading “Lady Astronaut” tagline – it’s impeccably researched but packed with smart, interesting characters. A bit like Stephen Baxter crossed with someone who understand human emotions.

Visiting

🏛️ Michael Rakowitz at the Whitechapel Gallery. Funny and political and smart, an artist for millennials.

🏛️ Manga at The British Museum. A workmanlike exhibition that’s nonetheless essential if you have any interest in Manga whatsoever.

🏛️ AI: More than Human at the Barbican. Very much for the layperson who doesn’t mind watching a bunch of Google and Deepmind marketing materials that are wholly unquestioned. There was one video, made and filmed by Deepmind, about the work they’re doing with Moorfield Eye Hospital – but nothing about the many controversies about their use of patient data.

It is an occupational hazard of curating an exhibition about AI that you quickly run out of good stuff to display. Sure enough, two thirds of the way through, the exhibition devolved into a grab bag of “future stuff” that had nothing to do with AI. Must try harder!

Actually, one more thing – there was a machine-generated poem installation at the Barbican. It wasn’t any good. I’m pretty tired of this AI fetishism and star-struck curators who pretend machine-generated stuff is worth exhibition.

The Once and Future Metafilter

Issue 10 of my newsletter – subscribe here

Metafilter is a weblog that anyone can contribute a link or a comment to. A typical weblog is one person posting their thoughts on the unique things they find on the web. This website exists to break down the barriers between people, to extend a weblog beyond just one person, and to foster discussion among its members.

I joined Metafilter shortly after it launched, snagging a coveted three-digit user number (482). This was in February 2000, almost twenty years ago – aeons in internet time. Not only have I been a member for most of my adult life, I’ve been there for most of my entire life there.

You know what they say about blogs and news sites, “don’t read the comments”? Metafilter’s unofficial motto is “Do Read The Comments”. Like Reddit, a relative stripling of only fourteen years, it’s the conversation and the community that keeps me coming back. Unlike Reddit, Metafilter is highly moderated and single-threaded, leading to more coherent and, frankly, less racist and sexist discussion.

(yes, not all subreddits)

In its first decade or so, Metafilter didn’t have to worry much about money. It was the early days of the internet, advertising dollars were sloshing around, we hadn’t had two recessions in a row, and there was less competition for eyeballs. The only thing it charged its users for was a $5 entry fee, and that was simply to keep the number of members low. Imagine that!

But times have changed and now Metafilter is suffering not only from precipitously declining advertising income, but also a continued gradual falling away of its active userbase. A few years ago, it moved towards a member-funded model, a little like public radio stations in the US, or more recently, like Patreon.

To be clear, there are still tens of thousands of monthly active members and likely many more non-members browsing around. But it’s a lot quieter than it used to be; newer forums and social networks have captured those who might otherwise have joined Metafilter.

I still read Metafilter multiple times a day. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been inspired by things I’ve read there. I would be a different, and worse, person were it not for the Metafilter community. So I was distressed to hear about its latest financial straits.

This is not a new development, so perhaps it shouldn’t be distressing, but the fact that it keeps getting worse is what hurts. And so while I have doubled my monthly donation, I’ve wondered what else can be done.

I’ve had to keep businesses afloat through tough times. I’ve had to make people redundant many times – and only after reducing my own salary (or cutting it entirely), often for several months in a row. And I’ve figured out how to move a business to one that is mostly subscription-funded.

So I think I know a thing or two about all of this, and so here are my recommendations for what Metafilter, or any other seasoned community-powered site facing similar dire straits, should do:

1. The overriding priority? Make more money.

Thanks to countless studies, we know that people make poor decisions when they’re stressed and anxious about running out of cash. I don’t mean Metafilter should pursue profit above all for the sake of champagne and yachts – I mean they should stop running at a loss. They can’t do this by cutting costs because their costs are already low, so they need to increase revenues.

How? Ask members for more money.

Not through a tiny, temporary bar on the website, but via an email sent to every registered member. All ~300,000 of them. Tell them about how the site needs their support, list some amazing posts and comments from recent months, and what their support will do in terms of new features.

I guarantee this will generate a shit-ton of money. Enough to stop worrying about money for several months, if not longer.

2. Sharing is caring

Make it easier for people to share excellent posts and comments from Metafilter. Amusingly, when someone suggested this their example was actually a tweet I made containing a screenshot of a lovely story about Stephen Hawking.

Apps like Instapaper let you create “text shots” from articles, by selecting some text and turning them into crisp images, complete with the article’s title and URL. This makes it easy to share them on Twitter and Instagram, where the articles can get a wider audience.

There’s so much good writing on Metafilter that deserves to be seen, and it’s the best advertisement the site could ever have.

3. Create a newsletter

OK, hear me out: The problem a lot of sites face is reminding people they still exist. It’s easy to fall out of the habit of visiting, especially now that RSS has died. That’s why so many sites rely on social media to share articles (hence point 2). It’s also why people like me are creating newsletters, so we can “push” things to your inbox.

Metafilter should do a biweekly roundup of the best posts and comments. Nothing too long, just the highlights. The good thing? It can politely ask people to consider subscribing.

Once upon a time I founded the Metafilter Wiki to help new users understand and navigate the odd traditions and in-jokes of the site’s community. I wrote the first few dozen pages myself, and paid for the hosting, and moderated it. It was a bunch of work and a real headache at times, but I did it because I cared.

If there’s a site or a service or community that you care about, whether online or offline, you’ve got to step up.

I know you’re tired. We’re all tired. But there’s probably something you can do, however small.

Watching

📺 Stranger Things Season 3 was delightful, and appears to have had all the money in the world dumped on it. Sure, it’s pure 80s nostalgia, but it’s good 80s nostalgia.

Reading

📖 The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. I don’t like abandoning books, but it was preventing me from reading anything else, so it had to be done. I can see why others might enjoy the worldbuilding, but I couldn’t face another 300 pages of exposition, not to mention the awful, unbelievable humour and dialogue.

Listening

📻 Talking Politics podcast on Hong Kong. An excellent primer to the recent mass protests – what they mean, why they’re happening, who’s protesting, how they affects China and Taiwan, and more.

Visiting

🌳 The John Muir Way or at least the stretches near Edinburgh. Who knew there were so many woods and forests and beaches here?!?

The Beatles, Unanticipated Uses of AR

Issue 11 of my newsletter – subscribe here

Despite growing up near Liverpool, I never visited any Beatles attractions other than popping into the Cavern a couple of times. It’s like living in London and never visiting The Tower: there’s always something more exciting going on.

I broke the habit of a lifetime by finally going to The Beatles Story, a museum on the Albert Dock. It was just about fine given entry cost £17. The whole place felt worn down and cramped, as if it hadn’t been properly refurbished since opening in 1990.

Back then, it would’ve been much more impressive to the hundreds of thousands it attracted every year, but nowadays it comes across as dated and irrelevant, for fans only. Even so, it attracted 266,614 visitors in 2017 – numbers that most attractions would kill for.

The odd thing was just how little Beatles stuff it had; there were a few nice pieces like Lennon’s glasses and piano, but I gather that a lot of impressive objects have been sold off to richer collectors and US institutions.

Not that a Beatles museum needs a lot of objects to be successful; The Beatles Story clearly has the band’s blessing, along with a few band-adjacent voices on the pretty reasonable audio guide. If they found a new space that was quadruple the size and hired the V&A designers behind the visually stunning and immersive Bowie and McQueen exhibitions, they could easily make their money back. Throw in a better restaurant and bar, and they’d print money.

Then again, this is an obvious idea and I can only assume the rights holders just don’t care. Paul McCartney is a billionaire, getting a few million extra a year from a museum would hardly register on his bank balance. Maybe he isn’t interested in that kind of legacy.

I had yet another call this week with a major tech company about augmented reality and gamification. It’s pretty clear that all the big companies have AR glasses coming out in the next 1-3 years and so they’re thinking very hard about possible applications, because, well, they don’t have any.

So here’s a free idea, albeit one that won’t be feasible for a few years: selling used goods.

I’ve started selling a lot of stuff on Facebook Marketplace lately. I used to sell things on eBay but after being burned a couple of times by buyers who claimed their item didn’t arrive, I gave up; but with Facebook Marketplace, you can get people nearby to meet you at a location of your choice. The listing process is also free and extremely fast.

It’s mostly been games I’ve finished, along with tech that I’m replacing or not using – old TVs, Kindles, iPads, that sort of thing. It turns out you can get a really good price for solid brands, and I feel good about this stuff being used rather than gathering dust in a closet. And yeah, the money helps.

I am temperamentally suited to selling my stuff in this way because I like not owning many physical things. Other people are different, and that’s where I think AR could help. Imagine glasses that tracked your activity, and could say, “Hey Adrian, you haven’t used this exercise bike in six months! I can have someone pick it up tomorrow for £180, what do you say?”

Is this creepy? For sure – especially if it was operated by Facebook. But if it was under your control, I think it’d be helpful for a lot of people. Right now, there’s a huge amount of friction that prevents community tool lending libraries from being set up – few people enjoy keeping a database of items up to date – but if it was completely hands-free and your glasses could instantly identify the make and usage levels of a particular item, I think most would be much more willing to opt-in and share or sell their items.

In other words, AR glasses could introduce a true sharing economy – not Uber, not Airbnb, but a true non-profit version – by dramatically reducing the friction involved in data entry and maintenance.

Of course, this is the optimistic view. AR glasses will also be used to sell us all sorts of useless shit in ways we can’t possibly imagine now, like putting virtual products in your wardrobe and virtual burgers on your plate, and saying “this burger could be yours in only ten minutes for just £5!”

Playing

🎮 Valleys Between on iOS. Imagine if Monument Valley and Alto’s Adventure had a baby that wasn’t as fun as it’s parents. It’s a paid game (which I like!) so I wanted it to be good, but it was devoid of challenge, and frankly, of gameplay.

Watching

📺 Stranger Things Season 3 on Netflix. I’m only halfway through but it’s hitting the perfect 80s nostalgia family action adventure spot. This season, I feel like they’re relying on the old Mad Men trick of making fun of olden times a bit more heavily, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

📺 Legion Season 3 is a welcome improvement on the previous season, being a soft reboot and also the final season of the show. I have high hopes.

🎞️ Yesterday. I was hoping it’d be a 7/10, but instead it was a 6/10. The concept remains gold, but the romantic relationship was poorly written and unbelievable. Although now I think HBO should make a prestige series about The Beatles.

🎞️ Spider-Man: Far From Home wasn’t as good as Homecoming, which had Marvel’s best villain after Black Panther, but I enjoyed the lighthearted teen comedy bits. Can’t wait to see what they do with Spidey once they get over their Iron Man fixation.

Reading

📖 Dealers of Lightning by Michael Hiltzik. I knew the legend of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates ‘stealing’ the idea of modern windowed interfaces from Xerox PARC, but this book documents the far more impressive and interesting truth behind Xerox’s research labs. It turns out PARC didn’t just invent the modern windows UI but also Ethernet, laser printers, VLSI, and (sort of) Postscript, SGI, and TCP/IP.

The lessons of PARC may not be widely known in detail but you can be sure they are familiar to Silicon Valley founders from the 90s and 2000s (e.g. Google) because they would have been advised by people who lived through it (e.g. Eric Schmidt, who worked at PARC from 1979-83). As such, you wonder if Google’s penchant for releasing every product they can think of is a response to Xerox’s releasing nothing due to internal politics. Of course, now we can see the problems with Google’s approach…

📖 The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton. Glowingly reviewed, the author is either wilfully obtuse or downright dim – you choose. I’m planning to write a longer review, but this book essentially boils down saying “Haha, technologists haven’t figured out a better way of killing whales than the harpoon – so much for iPhones, right?”

Listening

📻 Something For Your M.I.N.D. by Superorganism. Suitably weird.

Reading More = Reading Better

Issue 8 of my newsletter – subscribe here

It’s hard to shake the feeling you’re having the same thoughts and ideas as everyone else if you just watch and read and listen to the same content – which these days tend to be the most upvoted or retweeted.

This is a problem if your job involves coming up with original ideas. You could find other ways to discover content, like trusting editors to find you the best stuff, but ultimately you end up in the same place.

The best answer I’ve found so far is just to read a lot more. This means you can be less picky and just read whatever interests you, rather than whatever a newspaper or blog or prize name as the top ten or twenty books of the year. So that’s what I’ve been doing this year – instead of reading my usual 30 books in twelve months, I’ve finished 66 books in six months.

I haven’t gotten any better at picking winners than before – the average quality of those books is probably the same as it has ever been. Even so, I’ll read four times as many great books this year as I did last year.

At the same time, I’ve started reading more broadly because it doesn’t matter if I read a few duds. I pay a lot more attention to the books that appear in my local library’s ebook selection, and I’ve discovered a bunch of great books I never would have otherwise.

You’ll enjoy reading more if you read more. It’s as simple as that.

So, how do you read more?

  • Be more impulsive. If a book takes your fancy, read it.
  • Don’t sweat over Goodreads and Amazon ratings. I’ve discovered they barely correspond to the books I like, so I might as well just ignore them.
  • Listen to audiobooks to get started, if that’s your thing.
  • Set time limits on social media apps. I’m not saying you should stop using Twitter or watching TV, but if you want to read more, you should shift some of your low quality reading time for high quality reading time.
  • Read older books. People don’t talk about them as much as newer books, but chances are, they’re a lot better.
  • Let it go. Not every book has to be great. And when you do that, there’s more chance that some will be great.

If you’re looking for a good book to get started, I can recommend The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. It’s hard to me to explain why I adore it so much.

I could connect Tom West’s tale of leading a motley team of engineers and ‘microcoders’ to build a new computer to my own experiences as a producer, desperately trying to make something new and worthwhile and original while protecting my own team beneath a “shit umbrella”.

There’s the book’s marvellous grasp of the intricate technical details of how computers work, just as accurate today as it was when the book was published in 1981, and how they’re balanced with Kidder’s equally penetrating observations of what motivated the engineers who crafted those computers. How this is all bound together with a deep understanding of organisational psychology, and yet it’s as gripping as any thriller.

Or there’s the dozens of generous sketches of the engineers, sometimes as short as a few sentences, belying the days and weeks Kidder must have spent with each one to identify that perfect anecdote. A colleague of Carl Alsing, a character in the book, describes it here:

A few years later [after the book was published], in 1986 to be specific, I started a job at an OCR company. My cube was directly across from the office of Carl Alsing, the guy who managed “the microkids”. I didn’t put two and two together at first. Alsing was one of the people who interviewed me for the job, and I got to know him a little bit for a couple months before someone told me about the book connection.

So I went to the library, got the book out, and read it again. When Kidder got to the part where he introduces Alsing, it was amazing. In a paragraph he captured details about Alsing that I hadn’t even realized myself (e.g., his personality projects the image of a smaller man, though he was actually decently tall).

Towards the end, Kidder mulls over the future of computing and employment and, yes, artificial intelligence, in a way that presages our own worries, nearly forty years on.

The book is accessible, but its details are pinpoint accurate, making it that rare book that’s beloved by both expert computer engineers and general readers.

Bonus reading:

Delayed Followup

Simon Carless notes about overpaying mortgages vs. index funds:

One interesting point from a U.S. perspective – our mortgage rates are just under 4% (even for remortgaging things!), and then your mortgage interest is a tax write-off, meaning the effective return to outdo ‘paying down’ your mortgage is a lot higher than the U.K.

Nonetheless, it still makes sense to do index funds instead of mortgage paydowns! Just not such a large differential…

Yup, I forgot just how much the US tax code favours homeowners…

Watching

📺 The Women’s World Cup. Today’s Japan vs. Netherlands match was one of the best so far, if desperately sad for Japan.

Reading

📖 Fall; or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson. Started out mediocre, attained greatness, returned to mediocrity, descended into grinding tedium. I’ve said Interstellar is 2.5 movies long and only one of them is good; well, this is three books long, and once again, only one is good.

📰 China’s Most Advanced Big Brother Experiment Is a Bureaucratic Mess (Bloomberg). Turns out there isn’t just one social credit score in China, but dozens of them, and none work particularly well.

📰 Why Weather Forecasting Keeps Getting Better (New Yorker). Notable for this incredible story:

So, as Blum explains, in 1942 the German government came up with an ingenious solution. With help from the Siemens-Schuckertwerke group (a predecessor of the modern-day Siemens) and others, it developed a series of automated weather stations: these were an intricate array of pressure, temperature, and humidity sensors, encased in storm-resistant metal containers and equipped with batteries and a radio antenna. Some would hitch rides with the Luftwaffe and transmit weather readings from remote locations on the edge of Europe. By 1943, the devices were powerful enough to communicate across the Atlantic. That year, a Nazi submarine sneaked to the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, where a team of German soldiers took ten cannisters ashore on two rubber dinghies. For the plan to work, the weather station needed to stay undetected after it had been left in the wilderness, so they labelled the equipment “Canadian Meteor Service” and scattered the site with a host of American cigarette packs. Only in 1981 was the ruse discovered.