Bullies and Bystanders

If your reader feeds mostly consist of echo chamber walls, you probably don’t know that one of the more prominent Appleverse podcasts, Angry Mac Bastards, has recently went off the air, so to speak. (Admittedly I have been away from this corner of the internet for a while now, so the news may just be news to me.) The absence of this news is especially curious for sites like The Loop, which has been associated with the podcast, at least in the past.

Rewind a little. Here is my initial reaction a while back on my first (and last) listen to Angry Mac Bastards:

Fastforward back to now. Here is the incident that led to Angry Mac Bastards’ demise. Basically, they cyberbullied a developer named Aaron Vegh for… I’m not sure why. Here is an except from the segment:

Darby: Well I think you can sum up this Aaron Vegh’s, just the whole thing, just at the very beginning of his, ah, Hire Me web site. It says “Hi I’m Aaron, I’m the nerd you’re looking for. I’m a programmer ready to take on the next big challenge of my career. I’ve written a book, shipped two iOS apps, started my own web development firm, and worked for The Man. I’ve taken the chance on a startup, and I’ve started a magazine, though that one didn’t work out so well.” You know, this, this, this… there’s a picture of this fucker in a, if the gamma on your monitor is fucked you’ll think it’s a turtle neck it looks to be some kind of zip-up fleece performance job.

John: Thing.

Darby: You know, bagging on people’s personal looks is kinda low, but he’s got hair that’s been Photoshop’d on, your standard three-quarter turn, arms crossed, head slightly nodded, stock photo, “I am wise beyond your knowledge” uh gaze at you. Like John you were saying it’s just everything about this derp sums up that he’s the last person that anyone wants to hire, and (laughing) we spent so long talking about some poor fucking homeless guy that we’re slagging this poor chump’s attempting to get a job, but he’s done it so badly, it’s just disturbing.

And the response to the aftermath? Well, John C. Welch (that’s the “John” above) has apparently closed down not only Angry Mac Bastards, but also his website and Twitter account too. A non-apology apology remains in the internet archive though:

Fighting the Internet Outrage Machine isn’t worth it. It’s not worth the headache it will cause our sponsors, it’s not worth the headache it will cause our families. Our families don’t deserve that kind of crap.

There is just too much irony there to analyze fully. Let’s move on.

Even worse are reactions like Harry Marks‘s (Marks is, of course, a noted fan of the podcast):

They took apart a developer’s website in a mean-spirited and childish way, not unlike how they’ve torn apart bad tech writers over the last four years. Yes, they’ve been doing this for four years, but now suddenly it’s a problem.

That’s where defenders of Angry Mac Bastards are wrong. It is not only a problem now, suddenly. It has always been a problem. Unfortunately, too many of us bystanders simply watched and let the cyberbullying continue. And, worst of all, the people who actually listened to the podcast and its sponsors encouraged and enabled the continuing cyberbullying.

Honestly, we can all use some bystander intervention training. The first step is to name and acknowledge the offense, and not just in some excusable non-apology apology way. Blaming the response on the amorphous Internet Outrage Machine, despite the copious uses of capitals, is pretty much the opposite of that.

Yes, we might not do it consistently. But avoiding a hypocrisy charge at the cost of complacency is a really bad reason to let behaviors like AMB’s go on. Start somewhere.

(Needless to say, I have no problem with people criticizing arguments and positions, even in harsh terms. That’s not what Angry Mac Bastards do.)

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

Juxtaposition: Reviews

Shawn Blanc on Writer Pro:

… there is no document storage option like iA Writer had (in iA Writer on iOS you could chose iCloud or Dropbox for document syncing). Writer Pro syncs with iCloud or nothing. Which means your documents are sandboxed into the app. And there is no export option to get out all the documents at once.

… [Conclusion:] Is Writer Pro an impressive, beautiful, and useful piece of software? Absolutely. Is it going to find a place in my iPad writing workflow? I don’t think so.

Shawn Blanc on Vesper:

Though Vesper is shy on power-user features — no Dropbox sync, no iPad version, no TextExpander support, no import, no export — what it’s not shy on is thoughtfulness and extreme attention to detail.

… [Conclusion:] Whether or not Vesper becomes my new go-to note-taking app or not is irrelevant. An app doesn’t have to become my most-used app before I can appreciate its design considerations and its delightful details.

Notes for Apple Commentariat

Paul Krugman wrote up some notes for the Apple commentariat. Okay, he didn’t. But what he said easily applies.

My view, however, is that you don’t just want to look at whether people have been wrong; you want to ask how they respond when events don’t go the way they predicted.

After all, if you write about current affairs and you’re never wrong, you just aren’t sticking your neck out enough. Stuff happens, and sometimes it’s not the stuff you thought would happen.

So what do you do then? Do you claim that you never said what you said? Do you lash out at your critics and play victim? Or do you try to figure out what you got wrong and why, and revise your thinking accordingly?

Exercise for the reader: go to your favorite Appleverse sites and search for the phrase “I was wrong”; categorize them using the questions in that last paragraph quoted from Krugman. Post your results in the comments.

(Yes, I know I haven’t stuck my neck out lately either. Sorry.)

Distraction-Free Browsing

There are too many apps and posts about distraction-free writing. But what about distraction-free browsing?

If you’ve been longing for the days when you can read Daring Fireball without the annoyance of a browser menubar, help is here — in the form of a guest post from a reader who I’ll call “Dustin”.

0. install Firefox
1. install the latest nightly of Pentadactyl
2. type :se go=s
3. type :se showtabline=never
4. type :sty -A * .menulist-dropmarker,scrollbar{display:none;}
5. type :sty * #browser{margin:0 -1px;} #browser-bottombox{border:0!important;} #dactyl-completions-dactyl-statusline-field-commandline{border-top:0!important;}

Happy distraction-free browsing!

The Common Sense Trap

Lindsay Lohan’s third best movie of all time.

I recently started reading Duncan Watts’s book Everything Is Obvious. (Watts was an academic sociologist who recently took up research positions at Yahoo! and then Microsoft.) One core theme of the book is the failure of common sense:

The same difficulty of reconciling what, individually, appear to be self-evident beliefs shows up even more clearly in the aphorisms that we invoke to make sense of the world. As sociologists are fond of pointing out, many of these aphorisms appear to be direct contradictions of each other. Birds of a feather flock together, but opposites attract. Absence indeed makes the heart grow fonder, but out of sight is out of mind. Leap before you leap, but he who hesitates is lost. Of course, it is not necessarily the case that these beliefs are contradictory–because we invoke different aphorisms in different circumstances. But because we never specify the conditions under which one aphorism applies versus another, we have no way of describing what it is that we really think or why we think it. Common sense, in other words, is not so much a worldview as a grab bag of logically inconsistent, often contradictory beliefs, each of which seems right at the time but carries no guarantee of being right any other time.

The same kind of aphorisms are found in tech commentary. For a fun exercise, I came up with two aphorisms. To make this more interactive, try to come up with some examples that go with each.

1. A good product does one thing and do it well.

Dropbox. Instapaper. 1Password. These apps and services succeed because they focus on a core feature and implement that feature better than anyone else.

Indeed, all the recent positive reviews of the note-taking app Vesper repeatedly emphasize the fact that, despite lacking many features present in comparable apps, it does what it does so exceedingly well. (See, for a small sample, reviews from beta-testers Marco Arment, Shawn Blanc, and Federico Viticci.)

It sure seems that the one-thing-well philosophy encapsulates what it takes to be successful in the increasingly competitive app space.

Take a break.


Let’s go to the next aphorism.

2. A good product is adaptive and versatile.

Think about the products that Apple sherlocked. No one needs an HDR or a panorama photo app once Apple built those features in. No one needs a notification manager app any longer either.

Most recently, Harry Marks dismissed the death of all the flashlight apps beautifully: “The implication that Apple is hurting developers by implementing similar features into its OS means the writer has no concept of history, nor understands the difference between a feature and an application. Versatile apps survive. One-trick ponies don’t.”

It sure seems that the versatility philosophy encapsulates what it takes to be successful in the increasingly competitive app space.

Wait a minute.

Didn’t Dropbox get sherlocked by iCloud? Didn’t Instapaper get sherlocked by Reading List? And, with the iOS 7 announcement, didn’t 1Password get sherlocked by iCloud Keychain? Do these products survive because they do one thing well, or because they’re versatile?

Of course there are grains of truth in both aphorisms. Some products succeed because they do one thing well. Some products succeed because they are versatile. Some, such as Dropbox, succeed because they have both. Neither truism, though, encapsulates what it takes to be successful. They are at most partial explanations.

The problem is that, since both aphorisms sound so good, it’s hard to not hear them as complete explanations. It’s obvious that flashlight apps got sherlocked because they’re not versatile. It’s obvious that Vesper succeeded because it does one thing well. Nothing more needs to be said. Nothing more can be said.

In each case, we reach for whichever aphorism that is most convenient to us, pronounce it as the beautiful truth, and forget about its contradictory twin. We fall into the common sense trap.

How can we escape? For one, we can stop repeating and relying on such aphorisms. Even today, people are still constantly reiterating variations of if you’re not the consumer, you’re the product. Stop! For another, we can be more cognizant of our own fallibility. Have we got the whole story? Probably not. What are the other similar cases? Does the same aphorism apply there? If not, why not? Asking follow-up questions is a good way to not settle with aphorisms as be all end alls.

Common sense aphorisms are the bread and butter of lazy parochial tech commentary. If that’s not the kind of tech commentary you want to read or write, try to avoid the common sense trap.

Best Things I Read Somewhat Recently

A pair of excellent posts on gender in tech via Luigi Montanez.


We have lots of characters in tech. We use these characters to tell each other and ourselves stories about what technology is, what tech culture is, what innovation is, what our industry is. [...]

But we have a character that we hate.

She’s the marketing chick.

Missy Titus:

The women, really irritated now, say “No! If more men learned to put away their privilege and have empathy for other people we wouldn’t have this problem!”

And of course, the men, defensive, say “Hey, I was just trying to understand the issue and work with you to figure out why this is happening. You don’t have to be so bitchy about it! We’re just trying to help! This is why we don’t like feminists! People like you give them a bad name!”

Richard Gaywood on Apple’s three greatest innovations:

I think concentrating on innovation at the product level glosses over too many details. [...] I want to dig into which specific bits of it are innovative, and why. So I ruled out entire products and instead chose to focus more closely on the individual features of products.

Khoi Vinh on the disappointment of iOS 7 typography:

But in the case of both Apple and Google, their uses of Helvetica Neue are so prominent that they’re almost indiscriminate, and as a result both of these efforts skirt that thin line between aspiration and desperation. Where many graphic designers would mix in additional typefaces or even just different weights of Helvetica Neue to achieve an optimal reading experience and a balanced aesthetic, both Apple and Google seem overeager to use the thin and ultra light weights wherever they can.

Nick Heer on the design of iOS 7 beyond the surface elements:

iOS 7′s hierarchy makes the product understandable. True to Rams’ fourth principle, the context and structure are understandable, and help communicate the usability of the system. In many ways, this OS update removes the training wheels, with an expectation that most users are familiar with touch screens. But it is, at the same time, much more obvious for a novice user, and the clear hierarchy makes this possible.

Now go play some Monkey Island in your modern browser.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

PRISMatic Misdirection

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. PRISM is scary. Really fucking scary. It is especially scary to realize the level of cooperation that government surveillance agencies received from all our favorite tech companies — Google, Apple, etc.

Still, I think Gabe Weatherhead’s knee-jerk response is misguided:

The danger of ad companies like Google and Facebook isn’t that they are selling aggregated personal data. The danger is that they are aggregating unprecedented amounts of information. I applaud Google for fighting against the Justice Department but the problem, as The Guardian has shown, is that Google will lose much more than they will win.

The problem is with the prominent mention of “ad companies”, which suggests that the scariness has to do with ads versus no ads. It doesn’t. Collection and analysis of user information is nothing new. Yes, Google and Facebook do it to serve targeted ads. But Amazon and Target do it too to sell more things. Indeed, one of the scariest part about PRISM concerns the data from phone carriers. Phone carriers are, of course, user-supported and not ad-supported.

Best Things I Read This Week

George Packer of The New Yorker follows up on Silicon Valley values.

As Alec MacGillis of The New Republic points out, it’s a bit rich for Apple to argue — as Steve Jobs did for years — that the company needs more visas and green cards for foreign engineers, since there aren’t enough qualified Americans to fill tech jobs, while Apple does its damnedest to keep its contribution toward federal education aid as paltry as possible. This is an example, so blatant I couldn’t have dreamt it up, of the self-deception that exists alongside the hard work, idealism, and engineering brilliance of Silicon Valley. It’s the kind of blind spot to which young, self-confident, super-successful industries are especially prone.

It’s not surprising that Silicon Valley has come to believe that — as Khoi Vinh summarizes — “it can better the world by looking after itself first and last, effectively shirking any broader civic obligations, and that it generally regards government as a ruinous wasteland to be avoided and routed around, rather than as a means for social good.” It is a little surprising that this value is also permeated throughout the tech-centric blogs run by people outside of the Silicon Valley — the people who are indirectly damaged by Silicon Valley’s shirking of civic obligations. “Well, it’s within the current limits of the law” is an excuse, not a justification.

Mike Lacher of McSweeney’s gives the perfect parody of the the start-up culture ethos — that government regulations exist only to be “disrupted”.

The same way that Uber disrupted and revolutionized the way you hail a cab, we’re going to disrupt and revolutionize the way you get organ transplants. [...] Worried our transplanters aren’t totally qualified? Just check their star ratings. When transplanters give great service, maybe by removing a tumor they find during the transplant, or by offering an iPhone charging station in the operating facility, our users will give them great ratings. Similarly, if a transplanter gives not-so-great service, by arriving late or abandoning the user in a bathtub full of ice with two large incisions marking where their kidneys once were, our users will give them just one or two stars. When you’ve got our star rating system, you don’t need some wall full of diplomas to know your transplanter will take good care of you. That’s the beauty of the crowd.

The Appleverse likes to say you shouldn’t wear Google Glass because you’d look silly. That is a dumb reason. A couple of psychologists have given, at The New York Times, a better reason for not wearing Google Glass: your attention span can’t handle it.

Heads-up displays like Google Glass, and voice interfaces like Siri, seem like ideal solutions, letting you simultaneously interact with your smartphone while staying alert to your surroundings. If your gaze remains directed at the world, then presumably if something important happens in your field of vision, it will capture your attention and take over your consciousness, letting you respond to it quickly.

The problem is that looking is not the same as seeing, and people make wrong assumptions about what will grab their attention.

ACCORDING to the results of two representative national surveys we conducted, about 70 percent of Americans believe that “people will notice when something unexpected enters their field of view, even when they’re paying attention to something else.”

Yet experiments that we and others have conducted showed that people often fail to notice something as obvious as a person in a gorilla suit in situations where they are devoting attention to something else. Researchers using eye-tracking devices found that people can miss the gorilla even when they look right at it. This phenomenon of “inattentional blindness” shows that what we see depends not just on where we look but also on how we focus our attention.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.