The Problem with Follower Counts

Recode recently published this interesting article: ‘Twitter co-founder Ev Williams says in retrospect that showing how many followers you have wasn’t ‘healthy’’. It covers some intriguing comments that Twitter co-founder Ev Williams made about the effects of showing how many followers each user has. Here’s the key point:

“I think showing follower counts was probably ultimately detrimental,” Williams said at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal. “It really put in your face that the game was popularity.”

To me, Twitter has always obviously been about news and instantaneous communication. Instead, it has become yet another hub for trolls, fake news and harassment. The article goes on to discuss how follower counts, whilst viewed negatively now, were a major driver for Twitter’s early success and publicity.

Overall, the argument reminds me of a fantastic point that was made by creator of Micro.blog, Manton Reece. The site offers a friendly, engaging microblogging platform for people who are completely over the lunacy and bullying that is present on the major social networks. Besides costing a mere $5 per month to have your own hosted blog site, the real attraction is that there are no likes or follower counts. You can see who you follow but not who follows you. Not to mention, the lack of likes means that if you want to engage with someone, you actually have to reply to them. Manton set out his mission with further details here.

I joined because of a recommendation on Accident Tech Podcast by co-host Casey Liss, who was uncertain about his usage of Twitter, which he acknowledged has been instrumental in fuelling online narcissism and an upheaval in global politics. I still use Twitter happily but decided to reassess how I use it and other similar social media sites. I now post almost nothing to Instagram and I have focused my own following list on Twitter to those in whom I really have interest. It also helps in being able actually to read all of the content that you follow, rather than having an endlessly scrolling feed. I now use Micro.blog instead as a hub for quick thoughts, personal experiences and photos (the last of which I once posted to Instagram).

Sure, Micro.blog isn’t perfect and harassment can still exist there, however, the focus on genuine interaction combined with human content curation (no algorithms) and a payment plan means that users are generally much more engaged and also noticeably friendlier.

If you’re sick of the turmoil that’s often caused by follower counts, likes and excessive hashtags, check out Micro.blog. You own your content, so if you dislike it, you can export your posts and simply take them elsewhere.

Passing the Newspaper

Society is full of little niceties and customs that we don’t always consider.

Earlier this morning, I was sitting at one of my favourite cafés, reading an article on my iPad Pro whilst I waited for my wife to arrive at the table. There was a father-daughter couple enjoying breakfast at the table next me, before she had to go to school. Although I was already browsing the Web and obviously using a digital device, the father kindly turned to me as he and his daughter were getting up and offered me his newspaper.

I thanked him for the offer but declined politely. He said, ‘No problem’, then they left.

The fact that he was reading a newspaper is probably a generational thing, however, I find this gesture to be quintessentially Australian. That’s certainly not to say that friendliness doesn’t exist elsewhere around the world, but the custom of moving on from one’s table and offering a newspaper to another patron is something that I have only ever seen at home… never overseas. (Please correct me if I’m wrong!) What amused me was that this was such a learned, ingrained behaviour that he did it even though I was visibly reading online news on my device.

No doubt, this kind of custom must be the result of Australia’s enduring ‘Britishness’. Having worked with Germans in the past, they often questioned me (as the only Australian-born staff member in the office) why Australians felt the need to engage in constant social niceties and small talk. ‘It’s simply inefficient!’, they would say, particularly when a queue of people is behind you at the local supermarket checkout. That’s probably why they fling your groceries down the end of the line… there’s no time for chit-chat once the venerable barcode scanner is in action.

Whilst I would argue that the very specific offer of a newspaper is on its way to being completely antiquated, I value these moments and increasingly take notice of them in everyday life. As we all bury our faces in our devices, it’s important to look up, acknowledge and say ‘hello’ to strangers. This fixed attention to devices is something that I have noticed particularly on public transport.

Whilst it may sound corny, small talk and everyday acknowledgements are the glue that keep civil society together. Always take the time simply to say ‘hello’ or make an offer. It makes a difference.

Elon Musk on ‘Recode Decode’ with Kara Swisher

I really need to listen to this podcast more often.

As far as interviews with big corporate bosses go, this is a genuinely interesting and frank one. Musk addresses a range of questions from Swisher regarding the Model 3, conflict online with journalists, the toll on his employees, engineering feats at The Boring Company and more.

Musk on journalists…

Count how many negative articles there are and how many I respond to. One percent, maybe. But the common rebuttal of journalists is, “Oh. My article’s fine. He’s just thin-skinned.” No, your article is false and you don’t want to admit it.

The stress of running Tesla this past year…

It’s been terrible. This year felt like five years of aging, frankly. The worst year of my entire career. Insanely painful.

Confidence in Tesla’s lead over other car companies in software and self-driving…

The other car companies… I don’t wanna sound over-confident, but I would be very surprised if any of the car companies exceeded Tesla in self-driving, in getting to full self-driving. 

You know, I think we’ll get to full self-driving next year. As a generalized solution, I think. But that’s a… Like we’re on track to do that next year. So I don’t know. I don’t think anyone else is on track to do it next year.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Overcast and read the transcript on Recode.

Album Review: re:member by Ólafur Arnalds

Whenever I happen to stick on the radio or browse the top charts on Apple Music, I’m often disappointed by the waves of new music that I encounter. A lot of it continues to be disposable and entirely forgettable, failing to push music into really new and interesting directions.

For some reason, the nation of Iceland appears to be immune to this musical mediocrity, with bands and artists like Björk, Sigur Rós, Of a Minor Reflection and Of Monsters and Men continuing to release truly impressive albums that defy your expectations.

Neo-classical composer Ólafur Arnalds is no exception to this Icelandic trend. With his latest album, re:member, he has created something both beautiful and technologically innovative. The album was created with his new musical system, called Stratus. The system includes two self-playing pianos, which are triggered by a central piano that is played by Arnalds. The custom-built piano software is the result of two years of research and work by audio developer and composer Halldor Eldjarn. As Arnalds plays a note on the piano, two different notes are generated subsequently by the Stratus system, which creates unpredictable harmonies and melodies to form songs.

What is striking about this album is its subtlety and its feeling of optimism and hopefulness. Quite often, such piano music would probably be described by many as aimless, however, Arnalds is a master of holding listeners’ attention, guiding them through an often mysterious, other-worldly soundscape.

For me, this album definitely passes what I call the ‘HomePod test’. In my experience at home, Apple’s HomePod offers absolutely superb audio separation and deep bass without distortion or excessive vibration. Arnalds’s re:member sounds like it was made almost with the HomePod in mind, including shimmering, high piano notes contrasting with deep, drawn-out bass throughout many of the tracks. Each and every part of any given song shines and is clearly discernible.

Two particular stand-outs on the album (besides the opening title track) are partial and ekki hugsa, which demonstrate this HomePod-readiness. I’m typically the kind of person who detests the use of anything other than title case in my music library (harking back to my old manual iTunes file-tagging days), however, Arnalds has convinced me otherwise here. The use of lower-case letters on each track title seems fun and alternative, giving even more of a positive and informal feel to a neo-classical album.

For such a tiny nation, Iceland certainly has its act together and keeps producing impressive material. I wish that musicians in other countries would sort theirs out.

You can stream the album re:member here on Apple Music.

Photo Metadata on iOS

With the recent announcement of new 11- and 12.9 inch iPad Pro models, there have been many thoughts flying around online about what does and does not make the iPad a pro machine. There has been a particular focus on elements such as file management and the inability to connect external volumes to the new USB-C port. To me, this will certainly arrive in a future iOS release… Apple would not have replaced Lightning with USB-C on the iPad Pro if it weren’t serious about the iPad as a productivity device. We’re getting there.

For some time, I have been wishing for a particular feature set to be added to iOS, which unfortunately I think is much less likely: the ability to edit image metadata in the Photos app, such as keywords, titles and descriptions. Photos on iOS already has an impressive range of features based on machine learning, such as facial and object recognition, memories and even synchronisation with contact and calendar information to organise photos automatically. With this in mind, I would assume that Apple deems such manual image management as redundant on iOS.

As an example of when this would be useful, this week my wife and I received our wedding photos from our hired professional photographer. She (the photographer) did a fantastic job of culling and editing the selection before giving it to us, however, I wished to add precise locations to our over 800 photos. Also, rather than just dumping them into an album, which I could easily do on iOS, I wanted to include keywords and descriptions, so that they are all easily searchable in the main ‘Years > Collections > Moments’ interface. All of this still has to be done on a Mac, as no native interface exists for this on iOS. Whilst this process certainly isn’t a chore on the Mac and I have no real issue with it, it’s an example of functional inconsistency that could easily be resolved by Apple. Since my images are synchronised across all of my devices with iCloud Photo Library, it’s only logical that I should be able to interact with and adjust these photos in the same way on each device. There are third-party apps that can achieve this but I don’t wish to risk my data privacy.

In its promotional videos, Apple has shown how its new iPad Pro models attach to other devices via USB-C… imagine connecting a DSLR, importing photos and having full, manual control over their metadata. That sounds like a pro activity.

Some people wish that iPads had mouse pointers and trackpads; others wish for laptop-style hinges to prop up the display, such as the Brydge keyboard. These are major design points that can change the entire interaction model of the device (for better or worse). They’re interesting to consider but much of what makes the iPad so enjoyable is that it is a versatile slab of glass. Its minimalism and difference from traditional computers are the things that make it so fun to use.

To me, it comes down to the finer points of software consistency. I don’t want to have to choose which device I pick up based on what it can or can’t do; I want to choose which device I pick up based on how I want to use it: touch or pointer. If Apple can address such niggling points and offer consistent app experiences across its devices, this will see the iPad’s pro status confirmed. With the addition of pro apps such as Adobe’s upcoming Photoshop on iPad, I’m hopeful that we will start to see a new era of feature parity across iOS and macOS.

Australia vs. the Arts

I was browsing the Apple News app today when I came across this fantastic piece in The New York Times: ‘Is the Way Australia Funds the Arts a Recipe for Mediocrity?’.

Overall, the article explains how Australia lacks the funding and vision to encourage consumption of its own culture and artistic works. I couldn’t agree with this more and I’d love to go out on my own tangent here. (Make sure that you check out the full article though…)

Two major points stand out to me in the piece. The first is the matter of cultural cringe:

“Cultural cringe — in part, the tendency to overvalue the culture of Europe and North America and undervalue Australia’s own — lingers, many Australians in the arts argue. This, they say, plays into why the 28 majors, who mostly concentrate on traditional art forms and repertoire, are still so revered by those who manage government funding.

Professor Meyrick said that cultural cringe has lessened over the years, as Australia gained more confidence on the global stage. Yet this attitude is “still hard-wired into the administration of culture.”

I see evidence of this all the time. With friends and colleagues, discussions about television programmes and film always default to American productions. If mentioned shows are Australian, they’re almost always in the realm of reality TV. There is so much to be enjoyed on the government-funded free-to-air networks such as the ABC and SBS, with a multitude of home-grown drama, news, comedy and documentaries. Don’t even get me started on whether people go to theatres to see Australian plays. Such theatregoers do exist–I don’t wish to generalise–but it’s certainly not the norm.

Read on for the second point of note:

“Fundamental to the debate over funding is that Australia as a nation prioritizes sports over the arts. The last federal budget allocated nearly $75 million more to the Australian Sports Commission than to the Australia Council. According to a 2017 study by the broadband network N.B.N., Australians watch around 60 million hours of sports at home per week—about 2 and a half hours per person.

By contrast, some Australians regard the arts with suspicion, said Christopher Tooher, executive director of the annual Sydney Festival. Fifteen years ago, he said, the newly elected head of the government in the state of New South Wales felt the need to reassure the public that he was ‘a footy man’, referring to Australian Rules football, the national sport, ‘not an opera man’.”

The nation’s obsession with sport (particularly domestic sports such as rugby league, cricket and Australian rules football) is tiresome. Not only does it take too much time as a regular segment on daily news programmes, it swallows up other important spheres of daily life.

Perhaps my clearest memory of this fixation on sport is my time as a student in primary and high school assemblies. There were other extra-curricular activities for kids, such as debating, drama, photography, film cultural exchanges and vocational training, however, all assemblies contained at least 15 minutes of monotonous sport reports, as athletic school heroes were paraded in front of the bored school population. I never felt personally affected by this (other than lapsing in attention), but I am sure that others who were also not that athletic felt completley insufficient, as they were forced to watch the latest swimming champion was placed on a glorious pedestal.

Later, during my tertiary education (and even today), I frequently heard people say, “Oh, such-and-such is just doing an arts / creative arts degree because she/he didn’t know what else to do”. In general, the arts discipline and other creative fields are regarded as paths to zero employment. Areas such as sport, STEM and business are the ultimate symbols of success. The greatest leaps forward in society have in fact almost always come from the arts, whether from philosophers, sociologists, playwrights or musicians.

What’s particularly sad to me is that this attitude towards the arts has become so dismal, that it has even made it into an international American newspaper. I wish the Australian mainstream would turn its gaze to the wonderful pool of artistic talent in this country, spurring not only demand for Australian content but also increased funding.

Antipodean Antics

Australian politics has now been a downright mess for a decade, with elected leaders placing more emphasis on personality over policy. Legislation on issues such as energy, immigration, communications and industrial relations (amongst many other things) has lacked any real direction or conviction. Essentially, we have been living with a revolving door of parliamentary mediocrity, with leadership spills in each of the major parties. This time, it seems that Prime Minister Turnbull of the conservative Liberal-National Coalition is facing the chopping block. This fantastic article shared by the ABC from The Conversation details how ideological division and a massive leadership vacuum formed in the modern Liberal Party