Smart-compose_Taco_Tuesday.gif

“Hey [Google],

Haven’t [given you more control over my emails, memories, and livelihood in a while.]

Why [don’t you assume my voice and entire digital identity to complete the job?]

I’ve [attached all my banking details passwords to make it easier for you].

Love, [everyone]”

Are Subscriptions Fair?

Subscription pricing, once the domain of newspapers, magazines, and cable bundles, is lately becoming much more common in everything from online video and movie tickets to razors and meal kits. One newish area that has been causing a lot of anguish has been subscription pricing for apps, as summarised on Metafilter. I was inspired to write this comment in defence:

A couple of years ago, we switched Zombies, Run! from being a paid app with IAPs for new seasons, to a subscription-based service costing (now) $25 a year. The subscription allows us to pay not just for the cost of developing new content and features, but also the very significant costs of just keeping the app running on the latest versions of iOS and Android; not to mention working properly on new phone sizes and supporting basic new OS functions.

I’m not sure whether people realise quite how much work it is to just keep *exactly the same app* working over time. There is always something in new iOS and Android versions that breaks our app (and other devs’ apps); and particularly on Android, new phones will often also break things.

The simple fact is that most indie app developers are not swimming in cash, and that if thy decide to switch to subscriptions, usually it’s not out of a desire to squeeze every last penny out of users, but just to keep the lights on and not be continually terrified that tomorrow may bring zero sales.

Our switch to subscriptions was also driven by industry-wide shift towards freemium pricing for smartphone apps and games. Yes, there are old-schoolers who refuse to download freemium games, but they’re far outnumbered by people who – not unreasonably – prefer the much less risky option of downloading a game for free and seeing whether they like it before paying anything.

Some of that shift is also down to startups that were unnaturally juiced by venture capital firms. This is less common nowadays, but it was not unusual for investors to pump a few million in to an app development company in the hopes of making the new Runkeeper or Instagram. That investment is made with the goal of making a 10x or 100x return in a few years time, which in turn requires hyper-growth – and you don’t get hyper-growth by asking your users for anything terminally embarrassing like actual money.

I think the economics of this strategy have been more or less ruined by the fact that the most popular and generic non-gaming apps have now either been subsumed into the Google/Apple/Facebook nexus of free utilities; or into much larger lifestyle brands like Nike and Adidas, who effectively use them as marketing. That leaves more niche utilities apps like Ulysses (a writing tool) and Zombies, Run! which are small enough to fly under the radar of most VC firms; or professional apps like Adobe Creative Cloud, which are extremely expensive to develop.

I spotted some familiar themes among comments on the Metafilter and Hacker News posts, and I thought it’d be interesting to run through them here:

“Digital subscriptions are more like renting, not subscribing”

If you subscribe to the paper edition of The New Yorker, you get to keep all your magazines forever, whereas when your digital subscription ends, your access to the content completely ceases (just as Netflix does). This is a fair point although it ignores the fact that:

  • Digital subscriptions are often cheaper than print subscriptions
  • Most customers don’t place a high value on continued access to the content they had while they were subscribed…
  • …and in any case, this is balanced out by most digital subscriptions offering you access to the complete back catalog of magazines and issues, unlike print subscriptions

So I don’t buy this as a strong argument against digital subscriptions, although it varies an awful lot for each app – not just due to the type of features or content you get, but also due to the individual pricing.

“What about people with no money?”

It’s ahistorical to think that quality journalism – or quality software – was ever cheap, let alone free. Yes, there was a short period from, say, 1995 to 2015, where investors didn’t care about making money, but we’ve now returned to the norm where good, established stuff mostly costs money and bad or unreliable stuff is mostly free.

And I don’t see how subscriptions are necessarily any more expensive than paying up front for software. If you think $10 a month for Adobe Creative Cloud makes it unfair and inaccessible to poor people, I don’t see how paying $200 upfront was somehow far more accessible. You could equally argue that by lowering the initial signup cost, subscriptions are more accessible.

I, too, would prefer to live in a world where most people earned more and software was more affordable. I just don’t think that subscription pricing is at all related.

“Micropayments are the answer for journalism”

Only if you want your journalism to be entirely click-driven. I’m sure Blendle would take exception to that argument, but if your goal is to fund quality journalism, then I don’t think that paying only for the articles you read is the best way to go.

“Subscriptions contribute to the centralisation of data…”

This is a new one to me. Insofar as any monetary engagement with Google and Apple will reinforce their dominant position as platform owners, I can’t argue against this, although it would also require that you don’t pay for anything on these platforms. And I don’t think that’s a practical suggestion if you want to participate in modern society.

Guardian comments are destroying civilisation, Part II

Becky Gardiner just published a fascinating and damning study on the endemic hostility towards women and minorities in Guardian comments:

By using blocked comments as a proxy for abusive or dismissive comments, I found that articles written by women attracted a significantly higher percentage of com- ments that were subsequently blocked than those written by men, regardless of the subject of the article. This effect was heightened when the articles ran in a particularly male-dominated section of the site [e.g. Sport, Film, Technology]. I also found evidence that articles written by BAME writers attracted disproportionate levels of blocked comments, even though the research was not designed to reveal this.

The preliminary findings of the research were shared on the Guardian, and predictably, the commenters did not react well. Of course, Gardiner also analysed the content of those comments:

Half the comments (1,235, or 50.24%) … were coded as negative; 294 (11.96%) were positive; 799 (32.51%) were neutral.

[…]

Two-hundred-and-twelve (17.17%) of the negative comments criticised the research methodology, mainly on one of two grounds: either claiming that the research had failed to take moderator bias into account (this is discussed below), or that it had failed to consider the quality of the articles (for example, they said that articles by women may be more “worthy of complaint”). The study did not control for article quality, but assumed that, taken as a whole, articles written by women are not of poorer quality or otherwise more “deserving” of abusive or dismissive responses than articles written by men. In the author’s view, this “methodological” criticism is an implicit form of victim-blaming.

A further 277 (22.43%) of the negative comments were overtly victim-blaming. Some asserted that female and/or black journalists in general were more likely to write poor quality or controversial articles—for example,

“I would hardly say that all woman writers write daft things. But a lot of them do,”

or

“Male author: Neutral / economic / sport / war / politics (general) articles; Female author: More click-bait / anti-male articles / feminist articles.”

Others blamed individuals for the abuse they received—for example,

“Thrasher gets negative feedback because he racebaits, not because he’s black.”

These commenters failed to engage with the finding that the gender disparity was not confined to a few individuals, but was seen across the entire corpus, or that articles written by women got more blocked comments regardless of the subject they were writing about, and that this proportion increases when they write on subjects traditionally regarded as “male.”

Part of the problem is that many of commenters reject the value of moderation entirely:

Some commenters argued that all moderation was a de facto attack on free speech, and what the Guardian sees as self-evident—that commenters should abide by the community standards—was far from being universally accepted. This points to a fundamental breakdown between the assumptions of the Guardian and a significant cohort of its commenters, and will complicate any attempt to manage comments.

Gardiner ends with a couple of recommendations:

Moderation is not endlessly scalable, and although technologies (better filters, machine learning tools, and so on) will be an important part of the solution, they will not be enough. What is needed is a change of culture. If comment threads are to be diverse and inclusive, media organisations need to create small, curated comment spaces where journalists can genuinely engage with what is said, even when it is critical; they will also need to develop anti-racist and feminist strategies to counter racist and sexist speech, and offer stronger institutional support to journalists and others who do experience this.

Secondly, this research indicates that the hostility to women and people of colour below the line mirrors a historical institutional hostility to women and people of colour “above the line”—the discriminatory hiring and commissioning practices over many decades that have left them struggling to get published at all.

I’m a paying member of the Guardian because I value the journalism they perform. But while it’s worth noting that the comments on BBC News, The Daily Mail, and many parts of Reddit are far worse, I expect much more of the Guardian.

Three years ago, I wrote a post here, facetiously-titled Guardian comments are destroying civilisation. Life comes at you fast.

 

TSB and Bank Account Number Portability

Even after the TSB banking debacle, it’s unlikely that many of their customers will switch to another bank, given that just 1-2% of UK consumers switch each year with most being put off due to the hassle.

Yes, the new Current Account Switch Service has made the process easier, but it’s disappointing we never got the true “bank account number portability” mooted a couple of years ago, in which consumers could keep their account number and sort code for life and so eliminate practically all hassle.

No doubt this would be an almighty pain in the arse for banks to implement, but they figured out Faster Payments, so I’m sure they could figure out number portability! The only problem is that portability would harm the prospects of the big incumbents, who were unsurprisingly successful in shutting the whole idea down.

Spies, Cairo, and Cats on The New Yorker

I don’t know how I feel about rumours that Apple might buy part or all of Condé Nast – yes, their unlimited resources might boost journalism, but there is a long history of tech companies buying news companies and it usually doesn’t end well. Still, if Apple brought more readers to stories like these two from this week’s New Yorker issue, that’d be a small win:

The Spy Who Came Home by Ben Taub. The training process at the Farm sounds incredible:

[Skinner joined the C.I.A.] during the early days of America’s war on terror, one of the darkest periods in its history, and spent almost a decade running assets in Afghanistan, Jordan, and Iraq. He shook hands with lawmakers, C.I.A. directors, the King of Jordan, the Emir of Qatar, the Prime Minister of Singapore, and Presidents of Afghanistan and the United States. “I became the Forrest Gump of counterterrorism and law enforcement,” he said, stumbling in and out of the margins of history. But over the years he came to believe that counterterrorism was creating more problems than it solved, fuelling illiberalism and hysteria, destroying communities overseas, and diverting attention and resources from essential problems in the United States.

Meanwhile, American police forces were adopting some of the militarized tactics that Skinner had seen give rise to insurgencies abroad. “We have to stop treating people like we’re in Fallujah,” he told me. “It doesn’t work. Just look what happened in Fallujah.” In time, he came to believe that the most meaningful application of his training and expertise—the only way to exemplify his beliefs about American security, at home and abroad—was to become a community police officer in Savannah, where he grew up.

“We write these strategic white papers, saying things like ‘Get the local Sunni population on our side,’ ” Skinner said. “Cool. Got it. But, then, if I say, ‘Get the people who live at Thirty-eighth and Bulloch on our side,’ you realize, man, that’s fucking hard—and it’s just a city block. It sounds so stupid when you apply the rhetoric over here. Who’s the leader of the white community in Live Oak neighborhood? Or the poor community?” Skinner shook his head. “ ‘Leader of the Iraqi community.’ What the fuck does that mean?”

[…]

Training begins at the C.I.A. headquarters, in Langley, Virginia, where aspiring case officers develop cover identities to facilitate clandestine work abroad. After a few months, they are sent to the Farm—a sprawling, wooded campus in southeastern Virginia. There, for about nine months, the students inhabit an increasingly complex role-playing scenario, in which the Farm is a fictitious unfriendly country and the instructors serve as teachers, tacticians, sources, border guards, and officers of a hostile intelligence agency. Case officers rarely steal secrets themselves; instead, they recruit well-placed foreigners to pass along information.

Students practice their recruitment skills at fake embassy parties. Each is assigned a target from the host country, and is tasked with carrying out conversations that play to the target’s interests and hobbies; by the end of the evening, students are expected to have elicited their assets’ contact details, which are used to begin a delicate, months-long process of recruitment. The next day, they receive feedback on their approach. They lose points for tells as minor as drinking beer from a bottle; diplomats typically use a glass.

The Personal History section is seemingly written for people 30 years older than me, but Cairo: A Type of Love Story by Peter Kessler was a lovely tale:

After Morsi arrived, the mice vanished. He ate the heads of a couple, leaving the bodies behind, and others stopped showing up. The coat markings of Egyptian Maus resemble those of cats that are portrayed on the walls of ancient tombs, and even the name is old: in pharaonic times, mau meant “cat.” Maus are agile, and they are characterized by a flap of skin that extends from the flank to the hind leg, which allows for greater extension. These house cats have been clocked at speeds of up to thirty miles per hour.

The toddlers, like the mice, learned to give Morsi a wide berth. He had no patience for their chattering and tail-pulling, and he scratched each of them hard enough to draw blood. This was handled efficiently: one attack on Ariel, one attack on Natasha. Leslie and I thought about having Morsi declawed, but it would have put him at a disadvantage against the neighborhood’s rodents and stray cats.

It was impossible to keep him inside. He was strong enough to open screen windows and doors, and he hid around the apartment’s entrance, waiting for an opportunity to dart out. Often I’d hear cat screams within minutes of his escape. We had a small garden, where strays liked to gather, but Morsi refused to tolerate them. Many times, I saw him drive some scraggly animal out through a gap in the spiderweb fence.

Sayyid, the neighborhood garbageman, warned me that somebody might grab Morsi. “He’s a beautiful cat,” Sayyid said. “Qot beladi.” People often used this phrase—“a cat of the country”—when they saw Morsi and his stripes. Egyptians are believed to have been the first cat breeders in history, and they loved the animals so much that they forbade their export more than thirty-seven centuries ago. They used to call Phoenicians “cat thieves,” because the seafarers snatched them for their ships.

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery forces you to pay – or wait – to save a kid from being strangled by Tom Phillips:

You have a finite bar of energy you can hold at one time, and when this is depleted you’ll need to pay up or just wait it out and keep checking back before time runs out. You regain one energy point every four minutes, and there’s no way to regain energy for free doing another activity. The only challenge involved is remembering the game’s clock is still ticking away while you’re doing other things, so you can then return in half an hour to finish what should have been a two minute experience.

The first time the game engineers you will run out of energy is in its first action scene, where – creepily – your character is left in a life or death scenario while you wait half an hour to continue. Charitably you could say this energy system adds a certain cliffhanger-esque nature to Hogwarts Mystery – but the amount of energy needed is a completely arbitrary number, and one deliberately designed to fully deplete your energy bar. The game encourages you to make a purchase and continue immediately rather than wait and leave your avatar suffering. It is especially troubling when you consider the game’s audience.