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17 Feb 11:42

Inside Mark Zuckerberg's Lost Notebook

I first met Mark Zuckerberg in March 2006. At the time, I was the lead tech writer at Newsweek and was working on a story about what we were calling Web 2.0—the notion that the next stage of the internet would be a joyful, participatory creation of individuals. I'd heard about a social networking startup that was spreading like kudzu on college campuses. I wanted to learn more about it, perhaps give it a name-check in the story. Luckily, Zuckerberg, its cofounder and CEO, was scheduled to appear that month at PC Forum, a conference I regularly attended, at a resort in Carlsbad, California.

We agreed to meet at the lunch hour on the conference grounds. We sat side by side at one of the big, crowded, round tables set up on a lawn under the bright sun. He was accompanied by Matt Cohler, who had left LinkedIn to join Facebook. Cohler, unable to nab a seat next to us, sat across the table, barely within ear range.

Adapted from Facebook: the Inside Story, by Steven Levy, to be published February 25, 2020.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House, LLC

I took it in stride that Zuckerberg looked even younger than his 21 years. I'd been covering hackers and tech companies for long enough to have met other peach-fuzz magnates. But what did shake me was his affect. I asked him a few softball questions about what the company was up to, and he just stared at me. He said nothing. He didn't seem angry or preoccupied. Just blank. If my questions had been shot from a water pistol at the rock face of a high cliff they would have had more impact.

I was flummoxed. This guy is the CEO, isn't he? Is he having some sort of episode? Was there something I'd written that made him hate me? Time seemed to freeze as the silence continued.

I looked over to Cohler for guidance. He smiled pleasantly. No lifeline.

Stumbling for a way out of the awkwardness, I asked Zuckerberg if he knew anything about PC Forum. He said no, and so, as a resident Methuselah, I explained its roots as the key industry gathering in the personal computer era, where Bill Gates and Steve Jobs would go at each other with smiles on their faces and shivs in their fists. After taking in that bit of lore, he seemed to thaw, and for the rest of the lunch he was able to talk, albeit sketchily, about the company he started in a dorm room and which had grown to 7 million users.

Though I was unaware at the time, I had joined the club of those stunned by Mark Zuckerberg's trancelike silences. Facebook VP Andrew Bosworth once called this stare “Sauron's gaze.”

Zuckerberg and Facebook got four sentences in my cover story, “The New Wisdom of the Web.” If I'd known the things that Zuckerberg hadn't shared with me that afternoon at the La Costa Resort and Spa, I might have devoted more space.

Zuckerberg was entering one of the most productive periods in his life. A few weeks after I met him, he would lay out a ludicrously ambitious vision for Facebook. In a journal with unlined 8-by-10 paper, he sketched his mission and product design and explored how a tiny company might become a vital utility for the world. In detail, he described features called Open Registration and Feed, two products that would supercharge his company.

Zuckerberg found focus in that notebook and others. In his jottings are the seeds of what would come—all the greatness and the failings of Facebook. Over the next 10 years, Zucker­berg would execute the plans he drew up there. Facebook would transform itself from a college student hangout to the dominant social media service, with a population bigger than that of any country in the world, and was on its way to having more members than any religion. Zuckerberg's gospel insisted that more and more sharing was an inherent good. In addition to bringing people together, Facebook became a source of news, entertainment, and even life-saving information. The company monetized its user base with ads, and Zuckerberg became one of the richest people in the world, his name hoisted into the pantheon of PC Forum legends.

And then came the 2016 election. Suddenly, simmering complaints about the service boiled over into anger. Facebook's most cherished accomplishments became liabilities. The enormous numbers of people who connected, “We Are the World”-style, on the service now became alarming evidence of its excessive power. A platform that allowed the voiceless to be heard also allowed trolls to broadcast bilious provocation at ear-splitting decibel levels. It was a tool for deadly oppressors and liberation movements alike. And above all, it was an egregious privacy offender: Facebook's long-held ethic of sharing was now viewed as a honey trap to snare user data. And that data—information provided wittingly and unwittingly by all of us—was the substance on which Facebook grew fat and prospered.

Since 2006 I've been watching Zuck­erberg and, over the past three years, have been writing a history of his company. I've spoken to him nine times and observed as he's adapted—and, in some ways, refused to adapt—to the most challenging circumstances. The shift in public attitudes toward Facebook mirrors the reputational fall of the tech sector itself. But Facebook's unique circumstances emanate largely from its founder's personality, vision, and approach to management. To understand Facebook, you have to understand Zuckerberg.

That isn't the easiest task. Even he admits that there's a robotic coolness to his public persona. After many conversations, he got relatively candid with me, but there was always a measure of reserve. He never forgot that I'm a reporter and was understandably protective of himself and the company he built.

12 Feb 14:55

Psychedelic reggae for deep heads

by David Pescovitz

For nearly forty years, master Nyabinghi percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah has collaborated with dub magician Adrian Sherwood/On-U Sound and friends in a psychedelic reggae ensemble called African Head Charge. Sherwood has said the idea for the group and the first album, "My Life in a Hole in the Ground" (1981) was sparked by Brian Eno's "“vision of a psychedelic Africa," a phrase he used to describe his wonderful album with David Byrne, "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts." Throughout the 1980s, I'd often return to "My Life in a Hole in the Ground" as the soundtrack for my own personal journeys into inner space.

On March 6, African Head Charge is following up a series of vinyl reissues with Drumming Is A Language: 1990-2011 a CD box set or vinyl bundle containing five essential albums along with "Churchical Chant Of The Iyabinghi," a collection of unreleased version mixes from the early 1990s. For a taste, immerse yourself in the gorgeous expanse of "Peace and Happiness" above. The way out is the way in.

(via Dangerous Minds)

10 Feb 13:39

The New York Times's success lays bare the media's disastrous state | Emily Bell

The financial health of journalism has been deteriorating in such an acute way that every spit and cough emanating from its institutions is anxiously pored over to ascertain whether it’s a death rattle or a sign of miraculous recovery. An outcome few would have predicted for the future of media has been the resilience of a handful of decidedly old-fashioned legacy institutions, at the cost of the shrinking of the supposedly more innovative digital players.

The new gatekeepers of the global media, which are mostly American and Chinese mega-platforms such as Facebook, WeChat, YouTube, Google, Apple and co, have created a business environment that is inherently hostile towards free, advertising-supported media.

Costly journalism is the first casualty of an advertising model that favours these online platforms. Those organisations that have unbelievably survived the past 15 years of digital onslaught are defined by both the presence of mission and money.

Take for instance the New York Times, the midtown Manhattan local news organisation which is transforming itself into a global digital news brand. Historically characterised by its preponderance of seersucker suits and Mont Blanc pens, the “Grey Lady” was on the critical list a decade ago. Weakened by the financial crisis, its market capitalisation had halved to $1.5bn (£1.16bn) and its lavishly staffed newsroom numbers were heading south of 1,300. When it introduced a paywall in 2011 it felt like a last roll of the dice.

Even as recently as 2013 former publisher Arthur Sulzberger noted that it was a “very low moment” when the New York Times’s biggest rival, the Washington Post, was sold by the Graham family to Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos.

Last week, the New York Times emerged from its period of digital transition as a financially stronger, editorially robust organisation. It hit its very ambitious target of earning $800m per annum through digital revenues 12 months early and its share price rose to a 15-year high.

The newsroom, no doubt too busy to celebrate as it documents the unravelling of American politics, is at a historic high level of 1,700 journalists.

Ironically, this remarkable revival in both its subscription base and its share performance stems from the policies of Donald Trump. Digital subscriptions have boomed as the progressive audience sees support for reporting institutions like the New York Times as the only effective opposition to a corrupt government.

And the stock market boom, as we are constantly reminded by the president’s Twitter feed, is peaking on the basis of an economic policy that largely favours rich business owners at the cost of everyone else.

The revolving door between media organisations is in constant motion, but as the layoffs in local and digital news outlets continue, the New York Times is hiring many more than it is firing. Many of those who have joined as either staff or columnists come from the world of digitally native publishing.

Ben Smith, former editor-in-chief at BuzzFeed, left the newsroom he founded to join the New York Times as a media columnist. Pioneers of journalism startups such as Kara Swisher, America’s best-known technology reporter and commentator, joined the huge roster of writers. Choire Sicha, a key founder of defunct but highly influential sites such as Gawker and the Awl, now heads the styles section. Taylor Lorenz has joined, bringing with her beat reporting on influencers and TikTok, making the New York Times relevant to a whole new audience. The Daily Podcast is also hugely popular among younger audiences. This isn’t how the future was meant to be.

Chief executive, and former BBC director general, Mark Thompson put the success of the New York Times down to a strategy that allowed the digital assets within the news organisation to grow independently of the gravitational pull of the still-declining print product. Crosswords and cookery, both addictive and slick digital offerings, are far more important in revenue terms than their positions in a printed package would indicate.

However, there’s something else at play here which has more to do with the political and economic environment.

An aging audience of wealthy newspaper subscribers helped get the New York Times across the wobbly bridge to a digital world, where now, the same elderly subscribers have embraced digital subscriptions on their iPhones.

From here the process will be one of perpetual change, but one led by the elite legacy institutions. The New York Times, in one sense, is a spectacular and hopeful success story. But in other ways it reveals the disastrous state of the current media landscape. Connectivity has sorted society into the 1% and the rest. Winners taking it all are a feature, not a bug, of the current technocracy. If Smith, a far-sighted editor deeply invested in his staff and newsroom at BuzzFeed, could not see a sufficiently attractive path forward, then there probably isn’t one.

Nicky Morgan
Nicky Morgan warned the BBC not to end up like Blockbuster. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Against these lessons from America, the Conservative party’s attitude towards news media looks wilfully inadequate. Despite debating the Cairncross review’s recommendations on how to keep public service journalism plural and sustainable, the government rejected its most vital recommendation: that through a newly created Institute for Public Interest News, there should be a sustained and well-researched effort to ensure British media does not devolve into a 1% market.

The adaptation of the BBC as an extended platform to support local reporting was also effectively nixed by budget cuts. Further pressure on funding comes from the government’s dogged determination to decriminalise the licence fee; a consultation on the matter was launched only this week. Facebook’s refusal to curb lies in political advertising has been immediately rewarded by the culture, media and sport select committee switching emphasis from probing platform power to exploring how to diminish public service media.

The culture secretary Nicky Morgan’s most high profile utterance on the task of rethinking media was to urge the BBC to be more digitally adaptable, so as to not end up like video rental chain Blockbuster. It should be far more concerning to Morgan and the British electorate that instead the BBC ends up like Netflix: undifferentiated, afloat only on borrowed money, and inherently uninterested in the cultural needs of a population that needs reliable news.

10 Feb 07:11

Christopher Eccleston: ‘I really felt that I was going to die’

I was originally due to meet Christopher Eccleston a few months back. The plan was to discuss his new book, I Love the Bones of You, which is part autobiography and part moving tribute to his father, Ronnie, who died in 2012 following a long period with dementia. But then word reached us that the actor was keen not to dwell on that; was there anything else we might like him to talk about?

It is unusual for a celebrity to want to discuss anything other than the thing they were promoting. But it turns out Eccleston had his reasons for changing the subject. His book focuses heavily on his previously undisclosed struggle with anorexia and a mental breakdown so intense that the Priory psychiatrist Justin Haslam described it as one of the worst cases of clinical depression he had ever seen. Eccleston, 55, found it easy enough to write his account of the trauma, but the subsequent task of promoting it was far tougher than he had expected.

“It became very difficult,” he says, when we meet up in London at a members’ club in Soho. “Going on Lorraine, for instance, where you’ve got a couple of minutes to try and be articulate about anorexia. I think of myself as really quite robust – but I felt very exposed.”

He casts his mind back and smiles: “I mean, can you imagine going on The One Show to talk about clinical depression? They went straight from me to a piece about badgers!”

Eccleston’s breakdown came in early 2016 after his relationship with his wife, Mishka, collapsed; the pair are now divorced and co-parenting. He says he’s a lot better, even if recovery is likely to always be a work in progress. He exudes what you might call classic northern warmth – a big handshake to greet me, an arm around the shoulder even, and a keenness to make sure everyone in the room is happy, from the photographer to the woman bringing us coffees.

Christopher Eccleston with Daniel Craig in Our Friends in the North
Christopher Eccleston with Daniel Craig in Our Friends in the North. Photograph: BBC

Writing a book was a big thing for Eccleston. It covers his acting career, of course – those defining roles in Shallow Grave, Our Friends in the North and Doctor Who, as well as his 1991 breakthrough as Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It – but it is largely focused on the demons that have pursued him through life. It is delivered with searing honesty, and that is how he comes across today – a great talker, open about everything – which is strange, given that opening up doesn’t come naturally to him.

“I’m male and northern and from a working-class background, so you were not supposed to speak about your feelings,” he says. “I still carry all the baggage about masculinity and toughness, and I was ashamed about my depression and eating disorder.”

So why write it?

“Because I do think that the breakdown and hospitalisation changed my life,” he says, and as he does so his voice wobbles, almost breaking for a second. Eccleston has a big presence but there is an obvious fragility there. “It changed my view of myself and existence. I really felt that I was going to die.”

At his worst moment, Eccleston contemplated suicide. “I did have what people might call intrusive thoughts.” But then he thought about his two children, Albert and Esme, and the legacy it might leave. “I think cowardice played a part too,” he says, allowing himself a smile. “I thought: ‘That’s gotta hurt.’ Sorry to be crass.”

Instead, Eccleston ended up in a psychiatric ward, celebrating his 52nd birthday on his second day inside. He remembers that day, seeing himself in the mirror and realising he was walking like he had seen mentally ill people walk onscreen – he gets up and shuffles across the room to demonstrate, all hunched up. “I remember clocking it and thinking: ‘Am I acting this?’”

His doctors told him that there was a severe imbalance in his brain chemistry and he was put on high doses of medication. The trigger might have been the split from his wife, and the guilt around not seeing his children, but Eccleston’s problems had been brewing for years. Since childhood, he had suffered from body image problems. He wanted to be androgynous – “Still do, because I feel like a prop forward” – but he knew his mum and dad wouldn’t have tolerated their kid dabbling in eye liner on the streets of working-class Salford, where he grew up.

Christopher Eccleston with Kerry Fox and Ewan McGregor in Shallow Grave
Eccleston with Kerry Fox and Ewan McGregor in Shallow Grave (1994). Photograph: Allstar/Channel 4

“I could do all the male stuff – I was captain of the sports team and I’d get very physical on the field,” he says, “but I also had this interest in femininity. When I did my first play at Eccles college, Lock Up Your Daughters, I wore mascara and I was like: ‘This is fucking brilliant!’ I was expressing on the outside what I felt on the inside.”

He was never confused about his sexuality, although he says he has always appreciated male beauty. His relationship with his male friends had always been especially intimate, too: “It’s a terrible word, but there were suspicions,” he says, “because of how we were together.”

What Eccleston was actually hiding from his family were his issues with food. These only became worse when he ventured into acting, so determined was he to achieve the striking angular features of his heroes such as Daniel Day-Lewis.

Anorexia is, he says, “like being in hell”. Did it affect him every day?

“Every minute. All you think about is food – the consumption of, the rejection of. You don’t think about anything else.”

Eccleston’s approach to his work has always been intense and obsessive – not just in how he approaches his characters but in how he picks his roles. Yes, he has indulged in some Hollywood fluff in his career – he has described himself as a “whore” for starring in GI Joe and Thor – but he normally evaluates his roles in terms of what social good they’re bringing to the screen.

“Like my dad, who was an autodidact, I always saw television as political,” he says. “I always felt the work had to have some value beyond just me showing off, which I love doing.”

Eccleston in Let Him Have It
Eccleston as Derek Bentley in his 1991 breakthrough, Let Him Have It (with Paul Reynolds). Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

He once turned down the role of Begbie in Trainspotting, thinking it a cliche to cast a northern man in the most violent role (he wrote to Danny Boyle to say he thought he should be Renton instead). His proudest achievements aren’t always his most famous: Jimmy McGovern dramas such as Hearts and Minds or Hillsborough; Peter Bowker’s 2002 TV film Flesh and Blood. But even deciding to become Doctor Who or Macbeth had a political element to it – showing kids that a working-class lad from Salford could do it.

His choices, he thinks, were a subconscious attempt to make his father proud. His dad has been the overriding influence in his life, and this is something the book unravels with admirable elegance. I’ll admit that for the first 50 pages or so I worried it was going to be overly sentimental – Ronnie starts off being portrayed as an almost saintly character. But then Eccleston talks about his dad’s rages – terrorising the whole household when he returned home from work – and he writes incisively about the frustrations bound up in this man whose background meant he was never given the opportunity to reach his full potential. Eccleston bases most of his roles on aspects of his father and he unpicks every aspect of his character, good and bad, that came from him, too. His life story – from the highs of acting and the lows of depression – ends up far rounder for having been intertwined with that of his father’s.

Despite the devotion to his dad, Eccleston’s mother, Elsie – with who he had, if not a better, then a far less complex, relationship – emerges as the real rock of the family, the unsung heroine. Has she read the book?

“She has,” he says. “I’ve still not had the absolute conversation about it. I think she’s a bit ambiguous about it. I was worried she’d think I’d betrayed her.”

At Christmas last year, Eccleston thought things had come to a head when his mother told him he’d “got it wrong” in his book. She apparently said: “When you first moved to London, I didn’t send you a fiver every other week. It was a tenner.”

He grins: “I was just relieved it wasn’t something deeper.”

Christopher Eccleston in The A Word
Eccleston in The A Word: a third series will be broadcast later in 2020. Photograph: Rory Mulvey/BBC/Fifty Fathoms

Eccleston actually moved back in with Elsie after getting out of the psychiatric ward, continuing his recovery while she looked after him in his childhood home. His first UK job from there was to continue his role as Maurice in The A Word, Bowker’s BBC drama that centres around a young boy with autism. It is a show that means an awful lot to him: he has become close friends with Leon Harrop, the actor with Down’s syndrome who plays Ralph, and he loves the fact that television is bringing autism – “something that affects millions of people’s lives in some way or other” – into people’s homes. But the series is also closely connected with his recovery. “I first became ill on The A Word,” he says. “They saw it and they cared for me.”

In his book he relates how his agent convinced him to finish filming series one of the show before checking into hospital, which sounds like terribly irresponsible advice to me given his condition.

“Well, she did tell me that she found it hard seeing that written down,” he admits. “She’s a very sensitive, very intelligent human being. But I think, as a fellow who has defined himself by work, what she was saying to me was: ‘There will be a future – but less of one if you don’t finish The A Word, because it will leave you in the shit.’”

It is a depressing truth that leaving the show would likely have led to insurance issues for production companies hoping to cast him again. That may be the case anyway, given that he has now publicly disclosed his mental health issues. “What my agent and I discussed was that the more I worked, the more relaxed the insurers would become, and I’ve not missed a day’s work since,” he says, proudly. Still, he has noticed that work has been thin on the ground recently. “I only had three months’ work last year and there’s nothing coming up now,” he says. “But I think that’s possibly got more to do with me being white, male and middle-aged. And, quite rightly, those stories, which I’ve benefited from for 30 years, are not being told at the moment. I completely accept that. But I’m hoping that there are a few toxic male roles I can play soon. Surely we’ve not cleaned them all out!”

Reading Eccleston’s book, I was struck by how relentlessly critical he was of his own achievements. Whether it was playing Macbeth (“a deeply flawed performance”) or starring as Nicky Hutchinson in Our Friends in the North (Daniel Craig and Mark Strong supposedly gave better performances), he is never particularly kind to himself. Had I never seen him act I would assume, from his own words, that he was poor to middling at best.

Christopher Eccleston at Blacks Club, London
Eccleston in London in 2020: ‘I still don’t watch my performances, but I am easier on myself.’ Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

“Well, that’s how I feel most of the time,” he says. “It’s tied up with my whole notion of being thick and working-class. That I’m not very poetic. But I’m much easier on myself since the breakdown. I still don’t watch my performances – because I can be very critical of my physical appearance, which I have to be very careful about – but I am easier on myself.”

I think writing the book has probably helped Eccleston cut himself some slack. As with his best performances, he can identify the value in it.

“I do feel that going through my own hell can benefit my kids,” he says. “I know how extreme I’ve been in my life in the search for identity and self. And so I’m prepared for them to go seriously off-piste, as people do, and not panic or make it all about myself.”

In a way, it’s not for his father that he wrote the book, but for them.

“I didn’t want Albert and Esme to ever feel there was anything they couldn’t talk to me about,” he says, softly. “Not in the way that I felt I couldn’t talk to anybody. Nobody should go through that.”

I Love the Bones of You is published by Simon & Schuster (£20 rrp). To buy a copy for £16.80, with free UK p&p, visit guardianbookshop.com. Series three of The A Word will air on BBC One later this year.

• For help and advice on eating disorders in the UK, contact Beat on 0808 801 0677; in the US, contact the NEDA on (800) 931-2237; and in Australia, contact the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673. For help with mental health issues, contact mind.org.uk. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org

07 Feb 09:32

Mailchimps skrivråd – bland de bästa

by Jonas

Mailchimp – tjänsten för att skicka mejl som nyhetsbrev och liknande – har en Content Style Guide som är en av de bästa jag vet. Rejält omfattande, med avdelningar för Voice and tone, Writing legal content, och mycket mer. Visserligen på engelska, men lätt att tillämpa även för andra språk.

Utvecklad för det egna företaget, men generöst nog har de gjort den fritt tillgänglig för alla, under en Creative Commons-licens. 

Bild: Thomas Skirde från Pixabay

06 Feb 14:01

Here’s what you need to know before moving to a new CMS

Even if you hate it, you’re probably pretty comfortable with the system you use to publish news.

You’ve figured out the workarounds. You know the peccadillos. And that last CMS transition was rough, remember?

Cool. Ready to move again?

“It’s an overwhelming thought,” said Steve Beatty, who works in communications with Newspack, a publishing platform from WordPress. “Most of the time, I think journalists are happy with the devil they know.”

So why make the switch?

“CMS is destiny,” said Damon Kiesow, Knight Chair in digital editing and producing at the Missouri School of Journalism. “Pretty much everything you do in your entire organization, be it newsroom, advertising, subscriptions, video, AR – whatever the new thing is or the old thing is – that’s all constrained by the capacity or lack thereof of your content creation and publishing systems.”

There are now publishing platforms built by and for digital newsrooms both big and small. Journalists in different cities and from different companies are helping each other understand and use those platforms. And now, there’s a grant aimed at helping nonprofit newsrooms and newsrooms that cover underserved communities make the move. (It’s up to $20,000 for 25 newsrooms. See the details here.)

The biggest reason to make that move has to do with your current CMS, which “more than likely doesn’t allow the flexibility to be innovative,” Kiesow said, “and that innovation isn’t just editorial. It’s business, it’s audience engagement, it’s editorial storytelling.”

But moving to a new publishing platform is not necessarily:

  • The same as a site redesign.
  • Easy.
  • Just about technology.

“This is not just moving from Android to Apple or one format to another or changing the browser you’re using,” said Merrill Brown, founder and CEO of The News Project. “It is about the fundamentals of what someone running a site is actually trying to do … It’s thought of as a technology opportunity, and certainly the technology is critical, but it’s really a product and business opportunity.”

Among what new publishing platforms promise:

  • Faster load times
  • Increased opportunities to grow subscribers and members
  • Better storytelling opportunities
  • Better user experience

And the process itself puts a spotlight on workflow, company goals and culture – the big picture stuff.

So what do you need to know before choosing a new CMS?

We spoke with three local newsrooms and four publishing platforms to find out. We also provide details — not reviews — on five different CMS platforms that many newsrooms are using (including their prices.) You can sign up for open demos, and send your questions for the platforms and the journalists using them. We’ve partnered with News Catalyst for this project and will round up answers.

Still not sure it’s worth the trouble? How about this: “Companies are asking journalists to do more with less resources,” said Scot Gillespie, general manager of The Washington Post’s Arc. “The only way you can do that is with emerging technology so you don’t run yourself into the ground.”

More from Poynter and News Catalyst: We researched five CMSs — Arc, Chorus, Ghost, Newspack, and The News Project — to kickstart your CMS transition

A large crowd gathered for an Oklahoma Watch gun forum on April 23, 2019. Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch

Two years ago, The Philadelphia Inquirer moved to ARC and went through a site redesign at the same time.

“I don’t recommend doing that,” said Jessica Parks, the Inquirer’s assistant managing editor for digital and managing producer.

After Oklahoma Watch’s executive editor saw that WordPress’ Newspack was looking for newsrooms to pilot on its platform, he applied on the day of the deadline.

“I just kind of jumped in,” David Fritze said.

That meant that once the process began, it took Fritze awhile to catch up.

And The Dallas Morning News moved fast to transition onto Arc.

“How’s this for a pithy maxim: Never underestimate the challenges of content migration,” said Nicole Stockdale, Dallas Morning News’ director of digital strategy. “With just a little longer runway, we could have been more deliberate with some decisions that affected the newsroom; it seems almost impossible to get that balance right.”

Here are some lessons learned from both newsrooms and publishing platforms:

Get everyone on the same page

Two things make the process of moving to a new CMS easier, said Arc’s Gillespie: Agreeing that the move is a priority and understanding why. That means across the company, from business to tech to editorial.

“What we see very often is we’re actually the ones that are bringing them together and driving those discussions and helping with change management.”

What are the goals everyone can agree on? Efficiency? Higher engagement and traffic? Subscription conversions? Design flexibility?

Define those things up front, Gillespie said, so you don’t get off course.

Many newsrooms see moving to a new CMS as complicated, disruptive and expensive, said Brown with The News Project.

“It’s rarely something planned.”

But there’s a strategy behind moving platforms, and it matters to the business as a whole.

“I guess the thing that’s most dangerous is thinking of this in isolation and not understanding how cross-disciplinary it is. This is not the newsroom’s project, this is not the tech group’s project, this is the company’s project.”

If the migration and redesign process is not a collaboration across the company, Brown said, it won’t be effective, efficient or productive.

“It’s time to make this a priority and realize you can’t afford not to be thinking about it.”

Ask for help

With whatever publishing platform your newsroom chooses, you likely won’t be the first newsroom ever to use it. So don’t try to figure everything out on your own, said Parks with the Inquirer.

“Don’t reinvent the wheel.”

Midsize and bigger newsrooms have likely already done research and development with a CMS. What works for them? What are the limitations? What’s the transition process like? What’s the code to make that really cool thing? What does the data show?

“Most of those organizations are happy to talk and share,” she said.

In fact, the Dallas Morning News and the Philadelphia Inquirer have talked and shared as Dallas moved to Arc after Philly did, Parks said, and the learning has gone both ways.

“They have figured out some things that we sort of moved on from and gave up on.”

This is a big benefit, said MU’s Kiesow.

“It’s a community effort and even if there’s only 15 other people using it … they’re solving the same problems you’re going to have, and you can benefit from their knowledge.”

There’s no switch to flip

Newsrooms typically don’t move to a new publishing platform in, say, an easy afternoon.

“It’s helpful to have expectations close to reality,” said Katrina Barlow, vice president of Chorus Business with Vox Media’s Chorus.

One of those expectations, she said, is that big changes don’t happen overnight. Moving to a new CMS involves examining workflow, culture and technology.

At minimum, she said, the process can take four months.

And that process is iterative, said Stockdale with the Dallas Morning News.

“Months in, we still have a few major components of our workflow that are less efficient than they were on the old CMS. But our newsroom realizes that we’re better off overall – and they are crazy creative with workarounds.”

The unknown unknowns

One of the biggest mistakes newsrooms make is relying too much on the publishing platform itself, said MU’s Kiesow.

“It’s the unknown unknowns that kill us, and it’s typically because we didn’t have the right technology experts on our own side to do the vetting.”

That might mean that when print is no longer the main focus of the publishing system, what happens to the e-edition the old system made? Or the automatic reports for advertisers?

What happens to the archives? What happens to the urls?

Newsrooms have to ask those questions and make their solutions a priority from the beginning. And they have to accept that, even if they’re working with a media organization with a publishing platform, they’re still outsourcing some of their innovation to a third party, Kiesow said.

“They’re a much better vendor than maybe your old one,” he said, “but they also will likely have competing priorities, which means (you should) retain expertise internally to be able to support and execute on outlier needs you have that no one else has.”

Grant Moise, president and publisher of The Dallas Morning News, speaks during a Q&A session with employees in the newsroom in Dallas, Monday, March 5, 2018. (Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News)

How will this platform improve your company, and what is it improving?

That means understanding “first and foremost how the newsroom can improve their workflow and then how does the technology or the CMS platform help them do that,” said Gillespie from Arc.

Will this platform improve inefficiencies, including making it easier to publish quickly? Will it drive collaboration in the company? And ultimately, will it help more content get published?

“The reason that a lot of CMS transitions, especially in newsrooms, fail or are painful is they’re really not built to enable a newsroom,” Gillespie said.

More from Poynter and News Catalyst: How to get a new CMS: A guide

What are you trading?

Most publishing platforms aim to increase page load speed, create a better customer experience and create better back-end integration. But for the user in the newsroom, Parks said, it might be harder to write a story. Be prepared for some trade-offs.

How will this create a better customer experience?

“Try to understand what readers expect from a modern news site,” said Beatty with Newspack. “Are you delivering that? I think today people have little patience for slow loading times.”

How does this create new revenue opportunities?

“What is our product direction?” asked Brown from The News Project. “How are we thinking of our site in the context of product development and what these changes mean for building a new plan or implementing our existing one?”

What happens when stuff goes wrong?

And how big is the existing community of users to turn to for help?

What does success look like?

And how will you measure it? asked Oklahoma Watch’s Fritze.

A new look is fairly straightforward. If it’s raising revenue, a new CMS alone won’t do that.

“You can’t just stick a donate form on the homepage and expect to raise $50,000.”

Also, don’t forget all the other things that factor into success – big stories, a social media plan, community outreach. It all has to work together.

“There’s not a journalist out there who enjoys learning a new computer system,” said Beatty with Newspack. “They want to be out there committing journalism.”

So why do all this?

Since moving to a new CMS, Oklahoma Watch’s site is definitely faster, Fritze said. It’s also livelier and offers a more compelling way to display content, including projects. His team now has quick access to analytics.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has been able to create easy-to-use templates for custom presentations and data visualizations that more people can use, and it has a video platform the newsroom didn’t have before. Also, Parks said, SEO and page load times are dramatically better.

And in Dallas, the new site and CMS load time is 10 times faster, Stockdale said. In the first three months, user sessions went up 26%, new users went up 29% and users viewing three or more pages went up 15%.

But the work isn’t over after the transition is complete.

The process gave Oklahoma Watch a much better website and potential, Fritze said, and now his newsroom has to take the time to figure out how to best use it.

“I do feel like as a small nonprofit news site, we have been delivered to the doorstep of a kind of wonderland, and now we must figure out how to best use all of the new tools and options.”

Chorus’ Barlow put what has to happen post-launch like this:

“You’re suddenly getting like the world’s best fishing rod,” she said. “But that still means you have to put on waders, get in the stream and actually catch a fish.”

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org. She can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare

03 Feb 09:37

The Colorado Mystery Drones Weren’t Real

On the night of December 30, Sergeant Vince Iovinella of the Morgan County Sheriff's Department in rural Colorado was on patrol when the calls started coming in about drones.

“Residents began calling in reports of drones of unknown origin moving above houses and farms,” Iovinella wrote in a statement obtained by Motherboard via a public records request. “The numbers would range from 4 to 10 drones in an area at a time. Some were reported to be low and at least 6 ft. long.”

Iovinella further reported the drones had white and red flashing lights as he and other deputies made “several attempts” to follow the drones. The drones were moving “very fast at times” but could also “sustain a hover over an area for long periods of time.”

“There were many sighting’s [sic] coming in and at the same time,” Iovinella continued. “It is believed that there could have been up to 30 drones moving around the county if not more and appeared to be working in a search pattern across the county.”

This was yet another night on eastern Colorado’s new drone patrol, following a slate of reports on mysterious fixed-wing drones in the area. They’d come out at night between approximately 7 to 10 p.m. The story, which was first reported by the Denver Post, got international press attention.

Matters kicked into high gear after a medical helicopter reported on January 8 to have flown dangerously close to a drone in the same general area. More than 70 local, state, federal, and military officials jumped into action, convened in a small town called Brush, Colorado, and formed a joint drone task force of 10 to 15 different government agencies to solve the mystery.

“In all of these cases,” Iovinella wrote in this statement, “it is unknown who owns the drone or what their purpose is.”

That’s because the drones never existed.

On January 13, the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS) issued a statement about their investigation into the mysterious drone sightings in question. CDPS “confirmed no incidents involving criminal activity, nor have investigations substantiated reports of suspicious or illegal drone activity.” In other words, they found nothing.

Of the 23 reports between January 6 and January 13 when the investigation was underway, 13 were determined to be “planets, stars, or small hobbyist drones.” Six were commercial aircraft, and four remain unconfirmed. None of the 90 reports from November 23 onward were confirmed instances of illegal drone activity.

The CDPS statement confirms a Motherboard report that was published that same day which suggested the drones were not real.

The night before Sergeant Iovinella was cruising around Morgan County, the Yuma County Sheriff's Office was told by someone, whose name is redacted in the public records documents obtained by Motherboard, who “lives west of the airport here” and saw them by his house. “He figures it had to be dangerously close to interfering with airport air space,” the email says. Nobody floated the possibility it was a plane.

The next day, the Yuma County Sheriff T.C. Combs received an email from a man who wanted to get deputized in order to “form a special task force dedicated to the clandestine monitoring, capturing, and prosecution of those responsible for the recent public panic. My team will be dedicated to the liberation of our skies,” he wrote, and would be known as “Team Alpha WarHawk.” He identified the strengths of each team member, including his own (“comic relief”). His second in command was the “culinary expert” and was “great, but not amazing. However he’s what we got.” The third member of the team specialized in “weapons/Ammunition expert” but was also “just an all around great guy.” One “recruitment pool candidate” makes a “mean pot of coffee” while another is “the most charming man I’ve ever met.” The lone member with a name of Hispanic origin was their “linguistics expert.” It went on like this.

Our sheriff, it seems, is not without a sense of humor:

“I will put your team in the toolbox in case I need it, but just be apprised [sic] that these operations are usually handled as black ops and therefore there is no recognition for your service to the community. You will be regulated [sic] to drinking alone at the fdar end of the bar and not being able to talk about your exploits beyond a knowing glance at your teammates. I will inquire of the Feds (whoever that might be - because it’s a secret) to start the process on your security clearances. Hopefully our allies in the Middle East have let your travel ban from your previous travels rouge incident (the misadventures of youth should be allowed to fade into the murky past at some point) expire and that won’t be an issue. If not you will be restricted to operations only an [sic] United States soil which we all know is highly controversial. I think a good cover story would be windmill repairmen which would allow you move freely throughout the area [sic]. Thanks in advance for your desire to make Yuma County as safe place for its citizens.”

The Colorado non-incident adds yet another instance of drone hysteria to the record books, which has been documented by a white paper published by drone manufacturer DJI and a study by the Academy of Model Aeronautics which found only 27 out of 764 reports of drone sightings by aircraft pilots were legitimate near misses.

“While I can’t conclusively say we have solved the mystery, we have been able to rule out a lot of the activity that was causing concern,” Stan Hilkey, Colorado Department of Public Safety executive director, told the Denver Post even though it sure sounded like they had solved the mystery. “We will continue to remain vigilant and respond as new information comes in.”

30 Jan 08:32

Paris’s mayor has a dream of ‘the 15-minute city’

If you can walk or bike to work in 15 minutes—and can make it to a grocery store, a park, cafés, your kids’ school, or anywhere else you might want to go on a typical day in the same amount of time—you’re living in what’s called a “15-minute neighborhood.” They’re very hard to find now, even in dense cities (the average New Yorker now spends around 43 minutes getting to work, and that’s not on foot). But it’s a vision that Anne Hildalgo, the mayor of Paris, now wants to adopt city-wide.

Hidalgo, who is currently running for reelection, has embraced the idea of “la ville du quart d’heure,” or the 15-minute city, an extension of her work to create a post-car city. “It’s a city of neighborhoods where you can find everything you need within 15 minutes from home,” she tweeted in French last week. “This is the condition for the ecological transformation of the city, while improving the daily life of Parisians.”

[Image: courtesy Paris en Commun]

“This is a road map, an ambition, a new vision for cities,” says Carlos Moreno, a “smart city” professor at the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne who originally conceived of the idea and has been advising Hidalgo. Inspired by the work of Jane Jacobs, who argued that proximity is the key to making cities vital, he argues that cities should be redesigned so that people can access the basic social functions of a city within their own neighborhoods. Traditional urban design, with people commuting to a city center from a distance, is outdated. “I want to radically change this vision of cities,” he says. In part, it’s a response to climate change and the pollution from cars. But it’s equally about quality of life.

[Image: courtesy Paris en Commun]

Paris is already walkable, and as the city has added new bike lanes, the number of cyclists has grown 54% over the last year alone. But the aging train system often has delays, and many people still drive. More than half of people working in the area have a 45-minute commute, and it’s even worse for others. In one survey, the majority of Parisians said that they would be willing to take a pay cut for a shorter commute.

“The quarter-hour city would reduce two serious problems plaguing many Parisians: the air pollution that kills 3,000 people a year, which is largely caused by car traffic, and the many hours lost in transport suffered to go to work,” says Delphine Grinberg, a member of Paris Sans Voiture (“Paris without cars”), a group of Parisians who helped launch an annual car-free day in the city. “Many of my colleagues spend two to three hours on transportation to work each day. I am fortunate to live 15 minutes by bike from work. During the recent transportation strike, I hosted exhausted colleagues in my home.”

[Image: courtesy Paris en Commun]

The overall vision—focusing not just on how people get around the city, but on making sure that people live near the places that they need to go—is something that some other cities are now also beginning to consider. In Canada, Ottawa announced last August that it also wants to transform into a network of 15-minute neighborhoods. Moreno is also working on the concept with a think tank in Montreal, along with other cities in France, Tunisia, and Latin America.

Hidalgo’s plan would add offices in neighborhoods that lack them, so people can work closer to home. Some people could work in neighborhood coworking hubs; Moreno says that for many jobs now, the biggest hurdle will simply be convincing companies that employees can successfully work remotely. Another key to the approach, he says, is finding multiple uses for infrastructure that already exists. Libraries, stadiums, and other buildings could be used outside their standard hours. Nightclubs could double as gyms in the afternoon.

Paris has relatively little green space, so the city is adding greenery to school playgrounds, and Hidalgo wants to open access to these new “parks” to neighbors on weekends as a new place to relax. Two other large parks will be built from scratch, and the city also wants to plant “urban forests,” thickets of trees in public squares and on former parking lots. New gardens for urban agriculture can provide neighborhoods with local food. Cars will be banned near schools when kids are arriving and leaving to make it safe for kids to walk and bike. The city will encourage a diversity of local businesses, along with kiosks where neighbors can meet and share services with each other. And since in many cases, local resources already exist and may simply be underused, part of the concept involves reconnecting people with their neighborhoods (and perhaps finding ways to discourage addictions to shopping on Amazon.)

[Image: courtesy Paris en Commun]

A sketch from the reelection campaign outlines one way a street might change to make it more enticing to avoid driving and better utilize the existing road space: Filled with traffic and parked cars now, it would be redesigned with greenery and park space at the side, a wide lane for biking and walking, and parking spaces on the other side would be replaced with trees and terraces for café tables and activities such as bike repair. Hidalgo wants to pedestrianize the city center, with vehicle access limited to residents, emergency vehicles, and a few other exceptions, as the next step in a long effort to reduce driving in the city. She wants to build even more bike lanes, calling for a “100% bike” city. (When she was elected in 2014, she promised to build 1,400 kilometers of bike paths by this year; as of December, the city has not hit the goal, but it has reached 1,000 kilometers of paths.)

For the city, the efforts are one part of a plan to become carbon neutral by the middle of the century. But it’s also meant to improve the quality of life for Parisians and reconnect neighbors. “Paris is a beautiful city, but it is a stressful and lonely city for the inhabitants—many do not know their neighbors and their neighborhood,” says Grinberg. “If schools are open on weekends, if children can play on the streets, if services are found near you, the city will become much more friendly, and solidarity will develop.”

29 Jan 07:43

How to Disable Multitasking on iPadOS 13

by John Gruber

Apple support document:

To turn Multitasking features on or off, go to Settings > Home Screen & Dock > Multitasking, then you can do the following:

Allow Multiple Apps: Turn off if you don’t want to use Slide Over or Split View.

Picture in Picture: Turn off if you don’t want to use Picture in Picture.

Gestures: Turn off if you don’t want to use Multitasking gestures to see the app switcher, return to the Home screen, and more.

A slew of readers pointed to this after I said I’d prefer iPhone-style one-app-at-a-time multitasking to the convoluted easy-to-make-a-mistake/hard-to-correct-a-mistake split-screen and Slide Over multitasking in iPadOS. iPadOS supports an option that more or less does this — the “Allow Multiple Apps” option mentioned above.

I’m aware of no other graphical user interface that offers a setting like this. The existence of this setting — and that it is not tucked away under Accessibility — feels like proof that Apple knows iPad multitasking is often invoked by accident and can be confusing.

29 Jan 07:43

How to delete what Facebook knows about your life outside of Facebook

by Sara Morrison
The Facebook logo reflected in a window looking out over a smoggy city. The Facebook logo reflected in a window looking out over a smoggy city. | Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

The “Off-Facebook Activity” tool lets you see — and somewhat control — what other sites and apps tell Facebook about you.

Open Sourced logo

Facebook users just got a new glimpse into — and a little control over — the myriad ways the social network tracks what they do when they’re not using Facebook. If you didn’t already realize it, by the way, Facebook is tracking an astounding amount of what you do when you’re not using the platform, an activity also known as living life in the real world.

The new Off-Facebook Activity tool, which the company announced last August, finally launched on Tuesday. It can tell you which companies are supplying Facebook with information about your real-world activity — for example, that you visited their website or purchased a product from it.

Why does Facebook want this? Because it can then match that information with your Facebook profile and target ads to you (or, in Facebook’s words, “personalize your experience”). A lot of times when you think Facebook is listening to your phone conversations based on how specific its ads are, it’s actually because of how extensive (and hidden) its offsite data collection is.

This in-depth tracking is why you might see, oh, I don’t know, an ad for a play starring the venerable Kate Mulgrew immediately after a Star Trek: Voyager Netflix binge, even if you weren’t on Facebook at the time. This is also what allows many websites, including Facebook, to give you free services. So you are getting something out of this deal — you just might not have realized you were making the deal in the first place, or how much data you were handing over. (The play was great, by the way.)

Accessing the Off-Facebook Activity tool to see how much Facebook knows about your life outside of Facebook is not exactly straightforward. You can go directly to the tool by clicking here. If you’re trying to find it from your News Feed, you’ll need to go to Settings and then click Your Facebook Information. You should see a line for Off-Facebook Activity, and then just go to view. Then prepare to be flabbergasted. One of our reporters, for example, found that 518 apps and websites had shared her data with Facebook in some way:

a list of websites from Facebook’s off-Facebook activity tool

Many of the sites on her list were ones she had just visited. That’s because a lot of sites use Facebook’s trackers, which automatically collect and send visitor data back to Facebook. Even users with tracker-blocking extensions on their browsers will likely find dozens of instances where companies are sending personal data to Facebook.

The feature also allows you to opt out of some of this collection — to a point. Clicking on a particular company’s listing will bring up a dialogue that will give you a slightly more specific look at what data was collected. There’s also the option to “Turn off future activity” from that company. If you’re looking for a nuclear option, you can click “Manage Future Activity” and then flip the blue switch on the right side of the page.

This seems like it would turn off all real-world data collection, but that’s not exactly true. Right after you flip the switch, you’ll see a dialogue that says, “We’ll still receive activity from the businesses and organizations your visit.” This information just won’t be associated with your account.

You can also delete your off-Facebook activity history by clicking “Clear History” on the activity list. A window will then pop up asking you to click “Clear History” again:

Facebook’s clear off-Facebook activity history prompt

As the prompt says, you’ll still see ads — but they won’t be those creepy ads of a product you were just looking at on a different site.

If you don’t like the idea of your Facebook behavior being tracked and used for ads, you might also (if you haven’t already) want to change your ad settings on Facebook (available in the “Ads” section of your Facebook settings). Turn off “Ads based on data from partners,” “Ads based on your activity on Facebook Company Products that you see elsewhere,” and “Ads that include your social actions.” Again, this won’t completely shut off the tracking, but it will minimize it.

If you don't like the idea of being tracked by Facebook at all, tough luck. Even if you delete all of your accounts for Facebook-owned service, including Instagram and WhatsApp, it feels like there’s nowhere online or on earth that the social network can’t access. At least Facebook is giving you some control over it.


Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

28 Jan 07:01

★ The iPad Awkwardly Turns 10

by John Gruber

Ten years ago today, Steve Jobs introduced the iPad on stage at the Yerba Buena theater in San Francisco. It surprised everyone, in several ways. Some expected a touchscreen Mac with a stylus. Some expected a product that would do for the news industry what the iPod had done for the music industry a decade prior. Most expected a $1,000 starting price. The iPad was none of those things. It was also Jobs’s final big new product announcement.

“It’s just a big iPhone” was the most common initial criticism. Turns out, “just a big iPhone” was a fantastic idea for a new product — music to tens of millions of iPhone users’ ears.

Jobs’s on-stage pitch was exactly right. The iPad was a new class of device, sitting between a phone and a laptop. To succeed, it needed not only to be better at some things than either a phone or laptop, it needed to be much better. It was and is.

Ten years later, though, I don’t think the iPad has come close to living up to its potential. By the time the Mac turned 10, it had redefined multiple industries. In 1984 almost no graphic designers or illustrators were using computers for work. By 1994 almost all graphic designers and illustrators were using computers for work. The Mac was a revolution. The iPhone was a revolution. The iPad has been a spectacular success, and to tens of millions it is a beloved part of their daily lives, but it has, to date, fallen short of revolutionary.

iPad hardware is undeniably great. Lower-priced models are excellent consumer tablets, and are the cheapest personal computers Apple has ever made. They remain perfectly useful for many years. The iPads Pro outperform MacBooks computationally. They’re thin, light, reliable, gorgeous, and yet despite their impressive computational performance they need no fans.

Software is where the iPad has gotten lost. iPadOS’s “multitasking” model is far more capable than the iPhone’s, yes, but somehow Apple has painted it into a corner in which it is far less consistent and coherent than the Mac’s, while also being far less capable. iPad multitasking: more complex, less powerful. That’s quite a combination.

Consider the basic task of putting two apps on screen at the same time, the basic definition of “multitasking” in the UI sense. To launch the first app, you tap its icon on the homescreen, just like on the iPhone, and just like on the iPad before split-screen multitasking. Tapping an icon to open an app is natural and intuitive. But to get a second app on the same screen, you cannot tap its icon. You must first slide up from the bottom of the screen to reveal the Dock. Then you must tap and hold on an app icon in the Dock. Then you drag the app icon out of the Dock to launch it in a way that it will become the second app splitting the display. But isn’t dragging an icon out of the Dock the way that you remove apps from the Dock? Yes, it is — when you do it from the homescreen. So the way you launch an app in the Dock for split-screen mode is identical to the way you remove that app from the Dock. Oh, and apps that aren’t in the Dock can’t become the second app in split screen mode. What sense does that limitation make?

On the iPhone you can only have one app on screen at a time. The screen is the app; the app is the screen. This is limiting but trivial to understand. On the Mac you can have as many apps on screen at the same time as you want, and you launch the second, third, or twentieth app exactly the same way that you launch the first. That is consistency. On iPad you can only have two apps on screen at the same time, and you must launch them in entirely different ways — one of them intuitive (tap any app icon), one of them inscrutable (drag one of the handful of apps you’ve placed in your Dock). And if you don’t quite drag the app from the Dock far enough to the side of the screen, it launches in “Slide Over”, an entirely different shared-screen rather than split-screen mode. The whole concept is not merely inconsistent, it’s incoherent.

How would anyone ever figure out how to split-screen multitask on the iPad if they didn’t already know how to do it?

On the iPhone, you always launch apps the same way: tapping their icons. On the Mac, it’s slightly more complex. In most contexts — the Dock, LaunchPad, Spotlight results — you launch apps by single-clicking them; in the Finder, however, you must double-click them. There’s a method to that seeming madness — you must double-click to open something on the Mac in any context where single-clicking will merely select that item. But the Mac’s “When do I click, when do I double-click?” issue has confused untold millions of non-expert users for decades. How many people have you seen who double-click links in a web browser? The iPhone’s simplicity eliminated this sort of confusion. No one needlessly double-taps tappable items on iPhone. The iPad, originally, shared this simplicity and clarity. When the iPad debuted it was, from top to bottom, easier to understand than the Mac, and you could learn everything there was to learn about it just by tapping and sliding to explore. It was impossible to get lost or confused.

As things stand today, I get a phone call from my mom once a month or so because she’s accidentally gotten Safari into split-screen mode when tapping links in Mail or Messages and can’t get out.

I like my iPad very much, and use it almost every day. But if I could go back to the pre-split-screen, pre-drag-and-drop interface I would. Which is to say, now that iPadOS has its own name, I wish I could install the iPhone’s one-app-on-screen-at-a-time, no-drag-and-drop iOS on my iPad Pro. I’d do it in a heartbeat and be much happier for it.

The iPad at 10 is, to me, a grave disappointment. Not because it’s “bad”, because it’s not bad — it’s great even — but because great though it is in so many ways, overall it has fallen so far short of the grand potential it showed on day one. To reach that potential, Apple needs to recognize they have made profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface, mistakes that need to be scrapped and replaced, not polished and refined. I worry that iPadOS 13 suggests the opposite — that Apple is steering the iPad full speed ahead down a blind alley.

28 Jan 07:00

Cellgiftsbehandlingar

by Hexmaster
Jag minns inte när jag först hörde talas om behandlingar med cellgifter. (Eller cytostatika då. Men det är ju inte vad man säger i dagligt tal.) Men det var riktigt, riktigt otäcka saker. De kala huvudena var den synligaste biverkningen, men de var verkligen inte det värsta. Den som gick på cellgifter mådde verkligen superpyton. Satt i kolsvarta rum med hinken intill. Eller berättelser om f.d. patienter som när de gick på stan fick syn på någon vårdpersonal från sin behandling – och reagerade med att spontankräkas, som en reflex.

En del cancerpatienter som valde "alternativa" behandlingar gjorde det för att slippa cellgifterna. Eller så valde man helt enkelt bort cytostatikan, utan att ta till något alternativ alls. Kan en behandling få sämre betyg?

Den första indikationen jag fick på att läget numer är ett helt annat var när läkaren berättade om folk som tog bilen efter cellgiftsbehandlingen. Jag tappade hakan så det krasade i golvet – vadå, köra bil? Att kunna så mycket som sitta uppe och fika hade varit fantastiskt, med tanke på vad jag trodde att jag visste. Att sätta sig bakom ratten och ge sig ut på allmän väg? Komplett otänkbart. Men det fanns alltså folk som gjorde just det. Nu för tiden.

Efter snart tre månaders regelbundna behandlingar med cytostatika kan jag konstatera att forskningen gjort underverk. De allra kraftigaste biverkningarna för min del har varit munsår, torra fingrar och lite håravfall. Redan den sistnämnda punkten, som utmärkte cellgiftspatienten mer än något annat, hör till ovanligheterna. Illamående? Det förekommer, men såväl kvantitet som "kvalitet" (eller vad man ska kalla det!) är inte i närheten av vad det var för bara några år sedan.

En del medicinska framsteg låter höra om sig mer än andra. Men de flesta är så att säga inte rubriksmässiga. Att dagens cellgiftsbehandlingar är nära nog fria från biverkningar blir aldrig någon löpsedel, men lite förvånad är jag över att jag aldrig hört talas om det. Och för oss i kräftans tecken är det alldeles fantastiskt.

24 Jan 07:10

23andMe lays off 100 people as DNA test sales decline, CEO says she was 'surprised' to see market turn

  • 23andMe is laying off 100 people, as consumer DNA tests are down.
  • CEO Anne Wojcicki didn't have a clear explanation for that, but cited a variety of factors, including both recession fears and privacy concerns.
  • Wojcicki said she anticipated that DNA testing would explode when she co-founded the business in 2007, but is now looking ahead to a retracting market.

23andMe Co-Founder and CEO Anne Wojcicki speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 at Pier 48 on September 19, 2017 in San Francisco, California.

Steve Jennings

Home DNA-testing company 23andMe is laying off about 100 people, or 14% of its staff, on Thursday, in the wake of declining sales.

The layoffs include the operations teams, which were focused on the company's growth and scaling efforts, as well as other teams. In the coming months, the company plans to tighten its focus on the direct-to-consumer business and its therapeutics arm while scaling back its clinical studies arm.

CEO Anne Wojcicki told CNBC she's been "surprised" to see the market starting to turn.

Wojcicki has theories, but she doesn't have clear proof for why consumers are shying away from getting tests that reveal their percentage of Irish heritage, propensity for a favorite ice cream flavor, or whether they have a limited set of variants that are associated with breast cancer. Either way, she notes, she's downsizing because it's "what the market is ready for."

"This has been slow and painful for us," she said.

Wojcicki notes that privacy could be a factor. Fears about people's DNA ending up in the wrong hands might have been heightened in the aftermath of the Golden State Killer case. Criminal investigations honed in on a suspect involved in a decades-old rapes and murders by running DNA found at the scene through a free online database where anyone who got their DNA tested through a company like 23andMe could upload it. A suspect was found because a distant relative had shared their genetic information -- showing how DNA data, unlike other kinds of data, is unique because it's linked to and potentially exposes information about family members.

She acknowledges that "privacy is top of mind" both for consumers and her executive team. She said the company hired a new chief security officer, who previously ran security at Okta, earlier this week.

"I think the tech world needs to own this better communicate privacy standards to build trust," she said. "I want to jump in and really own it."

Wojcicki said another factor could be that people fear an economic downturn, and they don't want to spend a few hundred dollars on a genetic test. That might make it expensive for 23andMe to acquire customers via social media platforms like Facebook, if the early adopters have already bought tests and the next potential batch of users are reluctant to spend.

23andMe has seen its ups and downs over the years.

The company raised ample venture capital -- $786 million, according to Crunchbase -- and Wojcicki used that to fuel growth, including by hiring a team to acquire new customers for its tests, and to strike deals with both pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline and academic research groups. But the FDA conducted a regulatory probe in 2013 after 23andMe marketed a health test directly to consumers. The company repaired its relationship with the FDA and resumed sales of both its ancestry and health tests in 2015.

What followed was a period of hyper-growth, which involved the company ballooning to 700 people. And it seemed to be working. Sales of DNA tests were growing -- until they weren't, which started sometime in 2019.

The first clear signs of a slowdown in the space came last summer when Francis deSouza, chief executive of Illumina, maker of DNA sequencing machines, noted in its earnings call that the entire segment was down. DeSouza didn't share an explanation, but said his company is taking a "cautious view" of the market for ancestry and health tests. Illumina's customers include Ancestry and 23andMe.

Other companies in the sector have also pivoted or struggled, including Veritas Genetics, which shuttered its U.S. operations late last year.

Meanwhile, Color Genomics raised capital in recent months after focusing on the enterprise market, which involves selling to companies, and not just consumers. Its has relationships with Jefferson Health, a major hospital chain, and Apple, among others.

Investors in 23andMe include Google parent-company Alphabet, where Wojcicki's sister, Susan, is the CEO of YouTube, plus GlaxoSmithKline and Sequoia Capital, among others.

Correction: The layoffs affect 23andMe's operations team, as well as other groups.

13 Jan 07:35

I went to see a movie, and instead I saw the future

by Jason Fried

A few days ago my wife and I went to see Uncut Gems at a Regal theater in Chicago.

We booked our ticket online, reserved our seats, showed up 15 minutes ahead of time, and settled in.

After the coil of previews, and jaunty, animated ads for sugary snacks, the movie started.

About 20 minutes in, a loud, irritating buzzing started coming from one corner of the theater. No one was sure what to make of it. Was it part of the movie? We all just let it go.

But it didn’t stop. Something was wrong with the audio. It was dark, so you couldn’t see, but you could sense people wondering what happens now. Was someone from the theater company going to come in? Did they even know? Is there anyone up in the booth watching? Did we have to get someone?

We sent a search party. A few people stood up and walked out to go get help. The empty hallways were cavernous, no one in sight.

Eventually someone found someone from the staff to report the issue. Then they came back into the theater to settle in and keep watching the movie.

No one from the theater came into the theater to explain what was going on. The sound continued for about 10 more minutes until the screen abruptly went black. Nothingness. At least the sound was gone.

Again, no one from the theater company came in to say what was going on. We were all on our own.

The nervous, respectfully quiet giggle chatter started. Now what?

A few minutes later, the movie started again. From the beginning. No warning. Were they going to jump forward to right before they cut it off? Or were we going to have to watch the same 25 minutes again?

No one from the theater company appeared, no one said anything. The cost of the ticket apparently doesn’t include being in the loop.

Eventually people started walking out. My wife and I included.

As we walked out into the bright hallway, we squinted and noticed a small congregation of people way at the end of the hall. It felt like finally spotting land after having been at sea for awhile

We walked up. There were about eight of us, and two of them. They worked here. We asked what was going on, they didn’t know. They didn’t know how to fix the sound, there was no technical staff on duty, and all they could think of was to restart that movie to see if that fixed it.

We asked if they were planning on telling the people in the theater what was going on. It never occurred to them. They dealt with movies, they didn’t deal with people.

We asked for a refund. They pointed us to the box office. We went there and asked for a refund. The guy told us no problem, but he didn’t have the power to do that. So he called for a manager. The call echoed. Everyone looked around.

Finally a manager came over. We asked for a refund, he said he could do that. We told him we purchased the tickets through Fandango, which complicated things. Dozens of people lined up behind us. The refund process took a few minutes.

Never a sorry from anyone. Never even an acknowledgment that what happened wasn’t supposed to happen. Not even a comforting “gosh, that’s never happened before” lie. It was all purely transactional. From the tickets themselves, to the problem at hand, to the refund process. Humanity nowhere.

We left feeling sorry for the whole thing. The people who worked at the theater weren’t trained to know how to deal with the problem. They probably weren’t empowered to do anything about it anyway. The technical staff apparently doesn’t work on the premises. The guy at the box office wanted to help, but wasn’t granted the power to do anything. And the manager, who was last in the line of misery, to have to manually, and slowly, process dozens of refunds on his own. No smiles entered the picture.

This is the future, I’m afraid. A future that plans on everything going right so no one has to think about what happens when things go wrong. Because computers don’t make mistakes. An automated future where no one actually knows how things work. A future where people are so far removed from the process that they stand around powerless, unable to take the reigns. A future where people don’t remember how to help one another in person. A future where corporations are so obsessed with efficiency, that it doesn’t make sense to staff a theater with technical help because things only go wrong sometimes. A future with a friendlier past.

I even imagine an executive somewhere looking down on the situation saying “That was well handled. Something went wrong, people told us, someone tried to restart it, it didn’t work. People got their refunds. What’s the problem?” If you don’t know, you’ll never know.

08 Jan 11:08

Doors drummer John Densmore: ‘It took me years to forgive Jim Morrison’

It took the Doors’ drummer, John Densmore, three years to visit the grave of his bandmate Jim Morrison after he was found dead in a Paris bathtub in 1971. He didn’t even go to the funeral. “Did I hate Jim?” Densmore pauses, although he is not obviously alarmed by the question. “No. I hated his self-destruction … He was a kamikaze who went out at 27 – what can I say?”

Quite a lot, it transpires. Morrison was a man who was spectacularly good at being a rock star – a lithe figure in leather trousers, prophesying about death, sex and magic on some of the biggest hits of the 1960s – Light My Fire, Break on Through and Hello, I Love You. But he was catastrophically bad at the rest of life. Like many alcoholics, he could be reckless, selfish and mercurial. “The Dionysian madman,” Densmore has called him – a “psychopath”, a “lunatic” and “the voice that struck terror in me”. He had lobbied to get Morrison off the road before his death, and even quit the band at one point. “Some people wanted to keep shovelling coal in the engine and I was like: ‘Wait a minute. So what if we have one less album? Maybe he’ll live?’” Why did he carry on? “Because I wasn’t mature enough to say that at the time. I wasn’t trying to enable him. It was another era. I used to answer the question: ‘If Jim was around today, would he be clean and sober?’ with a ‘no’. Kamikaze drunk. Now I’ve changed my mind. Of course he would be sober. Why wouldn’t he be? He was smart.”

Densmore, 75, is a defiant survivor of the music scene he helped build. This, perhaps, is why, in the decades since Morrison’s death, he has become not only one of the great chroniclers of the Doors, but the fiercest protector of Morrison’s legacy. Anyone who has read Densmore’s 1990 memoir – a book he says was “written in blood” and would later form the basis for Oliver Stone’s (dreadful) Doors biopic – this may come as a surprise. “It took me years to forgive Jim,” he says. “And now I miss him so much for his artistry.”

Next month, a documentary about another of his bandmates, the keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who died in 2013, will be released. Manzarek’s relationship with Densmore was not smooth either. From the early 2000s, they were embroiled in a vicious six-year legal battle in which Densmore tried to stop Manzarek and the band’s guitarist, Robby Krieger, from touring under the Doors name as well as selling the band’s music for use on a Cadillac commercial. “I know. I sued my bandmates – am I CRAZY?!” he yells. People certainly thought he was. It is not usual to spend years in court trying to stop yourself from earning millions of dollars to prove a point about the value of artistic integrity over the pursuit of money. “What can I say? Jim’s ghost is behind me all the time,” Densmore says. “My knees were shaking pretty strong when they upped the offer of $5m (£3.8m) to $15m. But my head was saying: Break on Through for a gas-guzzling SUV? No!”

The Doors: Jim Morrison, John Densmore, Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger.
The Doors: Jim Morrison, John Densmore, Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger. Photograph: Estate of Edmund Teske/Getty Images

Manzarek and Krieger’s lawyers tried to paint Densmore as a dangerous communist – even citing a piece he wrote that was published in the Guardian as evidence for this – but eventually, and spectacularly, he won. He wrote a book about the case, published in 2013, and donated the profits to the Occupy movement. “Money is like fertiliser,” he says. “When spread around, things grow; when it’s hoarded, it stinks.”

Densmore is fluent in the language of the 60s elder: on the one hand, he talks of peace rainbows and pots of gold filled with love, despairing at the rise of “separatists and populists and borderline racists” running the US. On the other, he displays an almost chilling pragmatism about life and death, not uncommon among musicians of his generation, who lost so many friends to the era’s excesses.

“I interviewed Tom Petty a few months before he died,” he says quietly when I bring this up. The pair became friends during the court case – Petty’s song Money Is King, about a singer he once idolised who was selling his songs for a light beer advert, struck home with Densmore. “He had trouble with his hip. I guess he was taking painkillers and brown powder, too. Damn it …” he breathes deeply. “I just ache losing him.” He pauses. “Maybe it’s more noble to die in a friggin’ hospital with a bunch of tubes up your arm. I mean, it sounds horrible, but at least you rode the train all the way to the end – you never checked out early.”

I was shocked when heroin became popular. Even Jim knew heroin was a serious drug

Densmore grew up in the west LA suburbs. He was a gifted drummer from an early age, starting out in the high school marching band (an activity that in those days “ranked next to having leprosy” he once wrote). College put him on to jazz, and he worshipped at the altar of Coltrane and Davis. He was 21 when he met Morrison, who was tall, bookish and handsome. “I’m not into guys, but he looked like Michelangelo’s David,” he says. They had met through Manzarek, a friend of Morrison’s from UCLA film school, at a transcendental meditation workshop run by the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He took up meditation, he says, because he couldn’t take acid all the time and liked the “separate reality” meditation offered. “When we took LSD, it was legal. We were street scientists exploring the mind. I experimented with cocaine during the 70s and 80s. But it wasn’t my drug of choice. Ugh … drug. I hate that word. I was shocked when heroin became popular. Even Jim knew heroin was a serious drug. Heroin tried to make you forget everything. It scared me. So I stayed away.”

Compared with his bandmates, Densmore was a square. He wasn’t the film-school/literary type. He couldn’t understand Morrison’s obsession with Nietzsche (“Why would anyone want to read a whole book of such double talk?” he wrote); when Manzarek suggested he watch the François Truffaut film The 400 Blows, he ran out and got it, thinking it was The 400 Blowjobs. “Adolescence!” he laughs. At times, he was envious of the attention Morrison got – particularly from women. “Sure, I was jealous. I’d been a teenage drummer with acne. I remember thinking: ‘Why is Jim’s face so big?’ on the cover of our first album, The Doors. Probably because it wouldn’t have sold a lot of copies if it were my face!”

While he may not have been the centrepiece of the group, there is no doubt Densmore was pivotal to the band’s sound. It is hard to imagine Break on Through without his shimmying bossa nova rhythm, or LA Woman – a song that pulses with the hum of a hot California night – without the cascading drum break that makes way for Morrison’s growls of “MR MOJO RISIN’”.

Densmore in about 1960.
Densmore in about 1960. Photograph: Tom Copi/Getty Images

But as he toured the world with the Doors, Densmore’s family life became more unsteady. His brother had several stints in a psychiatric hospital. He describes going to visit him, finding him heavily sedated, and wondering how sleeping for 17 hours a day could possibly help his schizophrenia – a point that will be familiar even now to anyone who has had to endure acute mental illness. His brother killed himself in 1978. He was also called Jim; he also died at the age of 27. Densmore later wrote that he struggled handling sharp objects after his brother’s suicide. “I thought that if I did it, too, it would somehow make it better – atone for not saving him.”

“My sister got angry at me for writing about it,” he says. “For revealing the family secret. Our brother killed himself and back then it wasn’t talked about. And I apologised. I said I was sorry. I said: ‘I know it hurts, but I also want you to read these letters I’ve got from fans who say they wanted to commit suicide and didn’t because of this book.’ And that’s why it’s there. Because, as difficult as it is, it’s healing to get this stuff out on the table.”

Densmore made more music after the Doors split in 1973, and then turned his hand to acting and dance. But it was grief, it is clear, that drove him to the written word. “It’s funny. I got Cs in English at school. I hated it. But now I want to be a writer and I’m voracious for new vocabulary and new ideas. I like connecting new synapses. Like Jim Morrison did. I do sort of feel as if I’m channelling his passion for life.” He stops. “Actually, not for life – as I said, he was a kamikaze who went out at 27. But I want to set an example.”

Kyle Maclachlan, Frank Whaley, Kevin Dillon and Val Kilmer in Oliver Stone’s The Doors.
Kyle Maclachlan, Frank Whaley, Kevin Dillon and Val Kilmer in Oliver Stone’s The Doors. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Densmore’s writing about Morrison often reads as if it were done by someone who has survived an abusive relationship, such was the terror he felt around Morrison towards the end. “On the outside, Jim seemed normal,” he wrote. “But he had an aggressiveness toward life and women.” One such incident was early in their friendship when he went to pick Morrison up from a woman’s house and found him brandishing a knife at her while holding her hand behind her back. At the time, Densmore did nothing because he was worried that if anyone found out about Morrison, the band – and his own career – would be over. What does he make of this now? “I was really young,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out whether they were lovers, friends or enemies. I just felt like I needed to get out of there.” Would he have acted differently if it happened today? “Yeah, I would say: ‘What the fuck are you guys doing? Please take it down a few notches here.’”

There is also an anecdote in his memoir, one that makes it into the Stone film, too, in which Morrison’s partner Pamela Courson is brought into the vocal booth and asked to perform oral sex on the singer while he is recording the track Lost Little Girl. “Urgh,” he groans, when I bring it up. How does it make him feel? “Not so good. I mean, I don’t think he … Well, yeah … See, I’m at a loss for words. SEXIST, what can I say?” How did it feel at the time, when the whole band was there, seeing it happen from afar? “Well, you know, it didn’t really happen. They were just sort of kissing, and then she left.”

So it didn’t happen?

“No.”

That’s odd, I say, because Stone creates a scene out of it in his film. “Oh, my goodness. Well, you know, Hollywood movies are an impressionistic painting of the truth,” he says.

Later in the interview, we go back to this point. “I’m a little nervous that I’ve said stupid things,” he says. “But life is messy.” It is true – if you have lived as many lives as Densmore, seen generations change and shift, there is no doubt that what was acceptable 50 years ago is no longer so.

Densmore’s next book will be about his meetings with musicians. “Each chapter is about a different artist who has fed me artistically,” he says. It will go from his time learning to play the tabla with Ravi Shankar to his adoration for Patti Smith to the time he met Bob Marley. “Writing is a little easier on a 75-year-old,” he says. “I gotta pace myself. No disrespect to Jim and his 27 years, but I’ve been in it for the long run.” He will also get married this year “for the hundredth time” (it is his fourth time), to his partner of 13 years, the painter and photographer Ildiko Von Somogyi. “I guess I believe in the institution,” he laughs. He is proud he has found another career after music. “You want to have a bunch of lives,” he says. “And life does go on – if you stay vital.”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

08 Jan 07:20

Japanese housing of the future fading slowly into the past

by Lee

In postwar Japan, the desperate need for housing resulted in the mass construction of concrete tower blocks of varying heights and sizes — the initial design and efficiency of which were at least partly influenced by Soviet planned Khrushchyovka. Known as danchi, these government projects primarily offered affordable, but at the same time well-equipped apartments for the growing number of young, urban middle class families moving into the suburbs.

In the mid-1950s, when these new danchi began to appear, they were seen as the accommodation of the future. Along with modern fittings, they had the benefit of separate rooms for parents and children, although at the same time not enough space for different generations of the same family — an element that was a key factor in Japan’s gradual break with the long-held tradition of extended family members living under one roof.

The rush to build, and the similar rush of people wanting to move into these futuristic, concrete estates, eventually peaked in the early 1970s, when the authorities officially determined that the housing crisis was over. A decision that, planned or otherwise, resulted in the slow, perhaps inevitable decline of the once fabled danchi, both in regards reputation, and actual real estate.

Yet to this day a huge number of buildings still remain, and having initially moved in with their young, or soon to be young families, a considerable number of those early residents decided to stay. Nowadays though they are old, often alone, and their surroundings are far from ideal when it comes to the needs of the elderly. Isolation due to limited mobility and a dwindling network is an obvious problem, and along with other hardships, it has given rise to the terribly sad phenomena of kodokushi, or lonely, unnoticed deaths.

However, despite such issues, and to a certain extent stigma, some danchi are once again at the forefront of change by providing accommodation to Japan’s growing number of foreigners. For starters, such apartments are relatively cheap, especially as they don’t demand the often large, up-front payments that private property does. And arguably even more important is that for a section of society that suffers considerable prejudice when it comes to finding somewhere to live, public housing is on the whole far more open-minded. An element that in many ways takes these ageing complexes back to their original, and indisputably idealistic beginnings.

Plus separately, and on a decidedly more superficial level, some of these structures can still make one stop and stare. Like this bold, striking, and once optimistic monument to modernisation completed in 1972. A danchi that seen in the present feels genuinely poignant, as the future it once pointed towards is now irrefutably in the past.

Japanese public housing danchi

Japanese public housing danchi

Japanese public housing danchi

Japanese public housing danchi

Japanese public housing danchi

Japanese public housing danchi

Japanese public housing danchi

Japanese public housing danchi

Japanese public housing danchi

Japanese public housing danchi

Japanese public housing danchi

Japanese public housing danchi

Japanese public housing danchi

Japanese public housing danchi

08 Jan 06:57

Tricky Phish Angles for Persistence, Not Passwords

by BrianKrebs

Late last year saw the re-emergence of a nasty phishing tactic that allows the attacker to gain full access to a user’s data stored in the cloud without actually stealing the account password. The phishing lure starts with a link that leads to the real login page for a cloud email and/or file storage service. Anyone who takes the bait will inadvertently forward a digital token to the attackers that gives them indefinite access to the victim’s email, files and contacts — even after the victim has changed their password.

Before delving into the details, it’s important to note two things. First, while the most recent versions of this stealthy phish targeted corporate users of Microsoft’s Office 365 service, the same approach could be leveraged to ensnare users of many other cloud providers. Second, this attack is not exactly new: In 2017, for instance, phishers used a similar technique to plunder accounts at Google’s Gmail service.

Still, this phishing tactic is worth highlighting because recent examples of it received relatively little press coverage. Also, the resulting compromise is quite persistent and sidesteps two-factor authentication, and it seems likely we will see this approach exploited more frequently in the future.

In early December, security experts at PhishLabs detailed a sophisticated phishing scheme targeting Office 365 users that used a malicious link which took people who clicked to an official Office 365 login page — login.microsoftonline.com. Anyone suspicious about the link would have seen nothing immediately amiss in their browser’s address bar, and could quite easily verify that the link indeed took them to Microsoft’s real login page:

This phishing link asks users to log in at Microsoft’s real Office 365 portal (login.microsoftonline.com).

Only by copying and pasting the link or by scrolling far to the right in the URL bar can we detect that something isn’t quite right:

Notice this section of the URL (obscured off-page and visible only by scrolling to the right quite a bit) attempts to grant a malicious app hosted at officesuited.com full access to read the victim’s email and files stored at Microsoft’s Office 365 service.

As we can see from the URL in the image directly above, the link tells Microsoft to forward the authorization token produced by a successful login to the domain officesuited[.]com. From there, the user will be presented with a prompt that says an app is requesting permissions to read your email, contacts, OneNote notebooks, access your files, read/write to your mailbox settings, sign you in, read your profile, and maintain access to that data.

Image: PhishLabs

According to PhishLabs, the app that generates this request was created using information apparently stolen from a legitimate organization. The domain hosting the malicious app pictured above — officemtr[.]com — is different from the one I saw in late December, but it was hosted at the same Internet address as officesuited[.]com and likely signed using the same legitimate company’s credentials.

PhishLabs says the attackers are exploiting a feature of Outlook known as “add-ins,” which are applications built by third-party developers that can be installed either from a file or URL from the Office store.

“By default, any user can apply add-ins to their outlook application,” wrote PhishLabs’ Michael Tyler. “Additionally, Microsoft allows Office 365 add-ins and apps to be installed via side loading without going through the Office Store, and thereby avoiding any review process.”

In an interview with KrebsOnSecurity, Tyler said he views this attack method more like malware than traditional phishing, which tries to trick someone into giving their password to the scammers.

“The difference here is instead of handing off credentials to someone, they are allowing an outside application to start interacting with their Office 365 environment directly,” he said.

Many readers at this point may be thinking that they would hesitate before approving such powerful permissions as those requested by this malicious application. But Tyler said this assumes the user somehow understands that there is a malicious third-party involved in the transaction.

“We can look at the reason phishing is still around, and it’s because people are making decisions they shouldn’t be making or shouldn’t be able to make,” he said. “Even employees who are trained on security are trained to make sure it’s a legitimate site before entering their credentials. Well, in this attack the site is legitimate, and at that point their guard is down. I look at this and think, would I be more likely to type my password into a box or more likely to click a button that says ‘okay’?”

The scary part about this attack is that once a user grants the malicious app permissions to read their files and emails, the attackers can maintain access to the account even after the user changes his password. What’s more, Tyler said the malicious app they tested was not visible as an add-in at the individual user level; only system administrators responsible for managing user accounts could see that the app had been approved.

Furthermore, even if an organization requires multi-factor authentication at sign-in, recall that this phish’s login process takes place on Microsoft’s own Web site. That means having two-factor enabled for an account would do nothing to prevent a malicious app that has already been approved by the user from accessing their emails or files.

Once given permission to access the user’s email and files, the app will retain that access until one of two things happen: Microsoft discovers and disables the malicious app, or an administrator on the victim user’s domain removes the program from the user’s account.

Expecting swift action from Microsoft might not be ideal: From my testing, Microsoft appears to have disabled the malicious app being served from officesuited[.]com sometime around Dec. 19 — roughly one week after it went live.

In a statement provided to KrebsOnSecurity, Microsoft Senior Director Jeff Jones said the company continues to monitor for potential new variations of this malicious activity and will take action to disable applications as they are identified.

“The technique described relies on a sophisticated phishing campaign that invites users to permit a malicious Azure Active Directory Application,” Jones said. “We’ve notified impacted customers and worked with them to help remediate their environments.”

Microsoft’s instructions for detecting and removing illicit consent grants in Office 365 are here. Microsoft says administrators can enable a setting that blocks users from installing third-party apps into Office 365, but it calls this a “drastic step” that “isn’t strongly recommended as it severely impairs your users’ ability to be productive with third-party applications.”

PhishLabs’ Tyler said he disagrees with Microsoft here, and encourages Office 365 administrators to block users from installing apps altogether — or at the very least restrict them to apps from the official Microsoft store.

Apart from that, he said, it’s important for Office 365 administrators to periodically look for suspicious apps installed on their Office 365 environment.

“If an organization were to fall prey to this, your traditional methods of eradicating things involve activating two-factor authentication, clearing the user’s sessions, and so on, but that won’t do anything here,” he said. “It’s important that response teams know about this tactic so they can look for problems. If you can’t or don’t want to do that, at least make sure you have security logging turned on so it’s generating an alert when people are introducing new software into your infrastructure.”

07 Jan 14:38

Why Private Equity Should Not Exist

Hi,

Welcome to Big, a newsletter about the politics of monopoly. If you’d like to sign up, you can do so here. Or just read on…

Today I’m going to discuss address the nascent political attack on private equity, the financial model in commerce which more than any other defines the Western political landscape. The most important signal of this attack is in the Democratic Presidential campaign, where candidates are being pressured on what they will do about PE. Sure enough, Senator Elizabeth Warren, the standard bearer for sophisticated policy thinking, recently announced a plan to rein in PE. And Bernie Sanders is leading protests against PE acquisitions. Perhaps as important are rumblings on the right; Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s released a report in March attacking the control of the economy by financiers.

In other words, PE is starting to face some of the same headwinds that big tech is experiencing. I’m going to explain what private equity is and why it is facing these attacks. I’ll also go into a bit of history, how private equity, which used to be called the leveraged buy-out industry (LBO), was started by a Nixon administration official who oversaw the both the bankruptcy of New York City and the intellectual attack on antitrust in the 1970s. Finally I’ll also discuss what it would mean to eliminate PE from our economy and politics.

Here’s the man who originated the model, William Simon.

But first…

News Update

(1) Facebook’s Libra: Mark Zuckerberg is still going ahead with Libra. Few noticed this tidbit on Facebook’s earnings call, but it sounds like FB has reoriented its strategy, and is going to start its project building what is effectively a better version of Paypal. Here’s the transcript.

We're very focused on Payments with fiat currencies as well and making it so that when you pay in one service, whether it's WhatsApp or Instagram Shopping or Marketplace, your credentials can be shared and there is a shared payment system across all those things….

And then across the payments landscape, helping people do Payments in existing currencies and also trying some newer approaches that can hopefully bring down the costs of doing payments around the world. We're just very excited about everything in this area, and it's one of the biggest areas that we're focused on for the next several years.

Seems like Zuckerberg will stage the roll-out of his currency differently, starting with a basic money transfer service and then building out a private monetary system.

(2) Boeing Customers In Trouble Until Boeing “Gets Its Shit Together:” Low cost Irish airline Ryanair CEO had choice words for Boeing:

Ryanair has 135 of the 737 Max models on order, the first five of which are due for delivery in the autumn, but they will not be able to fly until regulators have declared the plane safe.

O’Leary warned that Ryanair may not have any of the planes ready by next summer unless Boeing “gets its shit together” in making upgrades required for regulators to allow the plane to fly.

I don’t think anyone in power recognizes just how much trouble Boeing is in. The leadership has no idea what to do because they don’t actually know how to build safe planes. The CEO was hired for his political prowess in covering up problems, not solving them.

(3) Details about the Facebook Settlement: FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra was on MSNBC on Sunday to talk about the Facebook settlement. Chopra, along with the other Democratic commissioner, dissented from the settlement. He pointed out that the FTC didn’t bother to complete the investigation and that the FTC didn’t get documents from Mark Zuckerberg, in return for which Facebook paid a $5 billion fine. It’s a very ugly situation in what looks like a corrupt deal, Facebook buys a liability release and the FTC gets a headline with $5 billion in it.

Here’s the segment. It’s ten minutes long, and though it’s on cable news, you won’t actually get dumber if you watch it. Then again, I already gave you the summary.

And now…

Earlier this month, a former Toys “R” Us employee named Sarah Woodhams confronted Democratic Presidential candidate Julian Castro. Woodhams told Castro about her experience at the corporation. She worked there for seven years, and then was laid off with no severance because a set of private equity firms bought the company and looted it. What she described is not an isolated instance, but an increasingly common one in America. Woodhams told Castro that “dozens of retail companies controlled by Wall Street have gone into bankruptcy, including RadioShack, Payless, and Kmart,” with 15,000 jobs alone in Pennsylvania having disappeared.

“Billionaires buy up these companies, make huge profits on our backs, and get away with it because there’s no financial regulation,” Sarah Woodhams explained. “As president, what will you do to hold private equity firms and hedge funds accountable for the destruction of our communities and livelihoods?”

Partly because of organizing by workers like Woodhams, partly because of the scale of the industry, private equity is becoming an important part of the political dialogue. Millions of workers working for companies controlled by PE funds. As I noted above, the debate is now hot; Elizabeth Warren released a plan specifically on private equity, paralleled by a report on financial power by Republican Marco Rubio in March. More importantly, Castro was confronted by an activist. Castro was embarrassed because he did not seem to know what PE was, so you can be sure the other Presidential candidates are preparing talking points on PE for their bosses. That’s a big deal, when even the mediocre politicians start to get it.

So what is private equity? In one sense, it’s a simple question to answer. A private equity fund is a large unregulated pool of money run by financiers who use that money to invest in and/or buy companies and restructure them. They seek to recoup gains through dividend pay-outs or later sales of the companies to strategic acquirers or back to the public markets through initial public offerings. But that doesn’t capture the scale of the model. There are also private equity-like businesses who scour the landscape for companies, buy them, and then use extractive techniques such as price gouging or legalized forms of complex fraud to generate cash by moving debt and assets like real estate among shell companies. PE funds also lend money and act as brokers, and are morphing into investment bank-like institutions. Some of them are public companies.

While the movement is couched in the language of business, using terms like strategy, business models returns of equity, innovation, and so forth, and proponents refer to it as an industry, private equity is not business. On a deeper level, private equity is the ultimate example of the collapse of the enlightenment concept of what ownership means. Ownership used to mean dominion over a resource, and responsibility for caretaking that resource. PE is a political movement whose goal is extend deep managerial controls from a small group of financiers over the producers in the economy. Private equity transforms corporations from institutions that house people and capital for the purpose of production into extractive institutions designed solely to shift cash to owners and leave the rest behind as trash. Like much of our political economy, the ideas behind it were developed in the 1970s and the actual implementation was operationalized during the Reagan era.

Now what I just described is of course not the rationale that private equity guys give for their model. According to them, PE takes underperforming companies and restructures them, delivering needed innovation for the economy. PE can also invest in early stages, helping to build new businesses with risky capital. There is some merit to the argument. Pools of capital can invest to improve companies, and many funds have built a company here and there. But only small-scale funds really do that, or such examples are exceptions to the rule or involve building highly financialized scalable businesses, like chain stores that roll up an industry (such as Staples, financed by Bain in the 1980s). At some level, having a pool of funds means being able to invest in anything, including building good businesses in a dynamic economy where creative destruction leads to better products and services. Unfortunately, these days PE emphasizes the “destruction” part of creative destruction.

The takeover of Toys “R” Us is a good example of what private equity really does. Bain Capital, KKR, and Vornado Realty Trust bought the public company in 2005, loading it up with debt. By 2007, though Toys “R” Us was still an immensely popular toy store, the company was spending 97% of its operating profit on debt service. Bain, KKR, and Vornado were technically the ‘owners’ of Toys “R” Us, but they were not liable for any of the debts of the company, or the pensions. Periodically, Toys “R” Us would pay fees to Bain and company, roughly $500 million in total. The toy store stopped innovating, stopped taking care of its stores, and cut costs as aggressively as possible so it could continue the payout. In 2017, the company finally went under, liquidating its stores and firing all of its workers without severance. A lot of people assume Amazon or Walmart killed Toys “R” Us, but it was selling massive numbers of toys until the very end (and toy suppliers are going to suffer as the market concentrates). What destroyed the company were financiers, and public policies that allowed the divorcing of ownership from responsibility.

The Origins of the Model: Building a “Counter-intelligentsia”

If there is a father to the private equity industry, it is a man named William Simon. Simon is perhaps one of the most important American political figures of the 1970s and early 1980s, a brilliant innovator in politics, financial, and in how ideas are produced in American politics. Simon was an accountant, a nerd, but also an apocalyptically oriented conservative financier who was a bond trader and top executive at Salomon Brothers in the 1960s and 1970s. Beyond ruthless, Simon believed in ruthlessness as a moral philosophy. He was, according to a friend, “a mean, nasty, tough bond trader who took no BS from anyone,” and would apparently wake up his children on weekend mornings with buckets of cold water. He was such a difficult person that he was invited onto the Citibank board of directors, and shortly thereafter, essentially kicked off.

In the early 1970s, Simon went into politics, a leader at the Treasury Department under Nixon and Ford. He oversaw not just Treasury but became the the ‘Energy Czar’ in charge of the oil crisis, and a key player in rejecting New York City’s 1975 request for funds to ward off bankruptcy. Simon, along with a few others like Pete Peterson, came out of the Nixon administration with a better reputation than he had going in, perceived as a neutral and competent technocrat. Simon saw both prosperity and poison in Nixon and Ford. He supported the attacks on New York City’s and the forced austerity by the Federal government, but he also despised Nixon’s attempted economy-wide price controls to deal with inflation.

After his time at the Treasury, Simon turned to intellectual organizing, because he believed that the Republicans were soft. Simon though Republicans, even when they had power, as Nixon or Ford of Governors like Nelson Rockefeller of New York, were still liberal, operating as conservative Phyllis Schafly put it, merely “an echo” of the Democrats. So he sought to finance thinkers in academia to restructure how elites did policy, or as he put it, a “counter-intelligentsia.” He became the President of the Olin Foundation, the key conservative foundation providing money to the nascent law and economics movement, the conservative intellectual backlash against New Deal controls on finance and corporate power. Law and economics wasn’t perceived of as a right-wing institutional framework, but a scientific one. Olin gave to Harvard Law to build out a law and economics program, and financial supremacy over corporations was accepted quickly in liberal citadels.

The law and economics movement helped build the intellectual edifice for PE, a model designed to restructure the American economy from the very beginning. In 1965, Henry Manne, a law and economics organizer, wrote about the “market for corporate control,” putting forth financial markets where corporations were bought and sold as the essential mechanisms for firing inefficient managers and replacing them with ones who would look out for the owners.

In 1965, Manne was ahead of his time, because most people thought American businesses were well-run. But in the 1970s, in an inflationary environment and as foreign imports began coming into the U.S. in force, this belief collapsed. In 1970, Milton Friedman put forward the shareholder value of the firm, a theory that the only reason for the corporation to exist is to maximize shareholder value. In 1976, Michael Jensen, the intellectual patron saint of PE, refined these concepts into a paper titled “Theory of the firm: Managerial behavior, agency costs and ownership structure,” arguing that loading up firms with debt would discipline wasteful management, and that placing ownership in the hands of a few would force managers to be attentive to efficient operation of the corporation.

The increasingly widespread belief that American corporations were mismanaged, inflationary chaos, and a crisis of confidence among liberals combined into what was a political revolution in commerce. William Simon was both both a participant in and a moral light for this revolution. In the mid-1970s, he (or his ghostwriter) put pen to paper, and wrote a book popular among members of “the new right” as the large class of 1978 Congressional Republicans (which included a young Newt Gingrich) was known. His book was called A Time for Truth, and along with Robert Bork’s Antitrust Paradox, it gave the New Right a language to marry morality and political economics. Reagan would run on New Right themes in 1980.

A Time for Truth reflected Simon’s hardcore attitude. It was a jeremiad, with terms tossed around like ‘economic dictatorship’, charges of Communism and fascism, and a screed about the perils of government. The book was introduced by the intellectual godfather of the right-wing, the Austrian economist, F.A. Hayek, who lauded it as “a brilliant and passionate book by a brilliant and passionate man.” Simon popularized the pseudo-scientific term, ‘capital shortage,’ or the the idea that businesses simply didn’t have the incentive to invest in factories because of government rules or fear of inflation. This led to inflation, lower productivity, and stagnation. The solution would be simple: cut capital gains taxes, cut government spending, reduce antitrust enforcement, and stop regulating through public institutions.

The Carter administration and Congressional Democrats took Simon’s advice, and slashed capital gains taxes, cutting the maximum rate to 28% from 49% in 1978. They deregulated trucking, finance, airplanes, and railroads. In addition, changes in pension laws enabled American retirement savings to flood into new vehicles, like venture capital and its cousin, what would first be known as leveraged buy-outs and then private equity. The Reagan administration’s further deregulation of finance enabled a long bull market in the 1980s as speculators took control of the economy. Shareholders no longer were content to leave their money in stocks that paid dividends, because they could now keep most of their capital gains. And the chaos unleashed by deregulation opened up the door to corporate restructuring of corporations who had been tightly controlled by public rules, but were now free to enter and exit new businesses.

In 1982, William Simon turned into a leader of the financial revolution. He pulled off the first large scale leveraged buyout, of a company called Gibson Greeting cards, a deal that shocked Wall Street. He and his partner paid $80 million for Gibson, buying the company from the struggling conglomerate RCA. The key was that they didn’t use their own money to buy the company, instead using Simon’s political credibility and connections to borrow much of the necessary $79 million from Barclays Bank and General Electric, only putting down $330,000 apiece. They immediately paid themselves a $900,000 special dividend from Gibson, made $4 million selling the company’s real estate assets, and gave 20% of the shares to the managers of the company as an incentive to keep the stock price in mind. Eighteen months later, they took Gibson public in a bull market, selling the company at $270 million. Simon cleared $70 million personally in a year and a half off an investment of $330,000, an insanely great return on such a small investment. Eyes popped all over Wall Street, and Gibson became the starting gun for the mergers and acquisitions PE craze of the 1980s.

Another business trend intersected with changes in policy encouraging financial dominance: the rise of management consulting. Like law and economics, management consultants rose in the late 1960s with pseudo-scientific theories about business, and they began treating corporations as financial portfolios, with subsidiaries of assets. Many of the organizers of private equity firms in the 1980s came from management consulting firms like the Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey. Mitt Romney was an early innovator around PE. He came from Bain, which was a consulting firm. To give you a sense of what that meant in terms of the philosophy of commerce, here's Bain Consulting today, helping companies find ways to innovate around raising prices instead of productive techniques.

PE firms serve as transmitters of information across businesses, sort of disease vectors for price gouging and legal arbitrage. If a certain kind of price gouging strategy works in a pharmaceutical company, a private equity company can roll through the industry, buying up every possible candidate and quickly forcing the price gouging everywhere. In the defense sector, Transdigm serves this role, buying up aerospace spare parts makers with pricing power and jacking up prices, in effect spreading corrupt contracting arbitrage against the Pentagon much more rapidly than it would have spread otherwise.

More fundamentally, private equity was about getting rid of the slack that American managers had to look out for the long-term, slack that allowed them to fund research and experiment with productive techniques. PE replaced slack with brutal debt schedules and massive upside for higher stock prices, and no downside for the owner-financiers should the company fail. The goal is to eliminate production in favor of scalable profitable things like brands, patents, and tax loopholes, because producers - engineers, artists, workers - are cost centers. Production can also be eliminated by fissuring the workplace, such as the mass move to offshore production to lower cost countries in the 1980s onward. When I reported on the problem of financialization destroying our national security capacity, one of the manufacturers I talked to told me about how the “LBO boys” - or Leveraged Buy Out Boys - took apart factories in the midwest and shipped them to China.

There hasn’t been a lot of analysis of just how profitable private equity really is for investors or lenders, and I’m only touching on part of what is a very complex phenomenon. There are ways PE funds organize fees against pension funds, there’s self-dealing among banks and middlemen, and at this point large PE firms are buying insurance companies and dedicating their insurance portfolios to PE deals. But I found this paper by Brian Ayash and Mahdi Rastad quite useful. What Ayash and Rastad noted is that companies bought by private equity are ten times more likely than comparable companies to go bankrupt. And this makes sense. The goal in PE isn’t to create or to make a company more efficient, it is to find legal loopholes that allow the organizers of the fund to maximize their return and shift the risk to someone else, as quickly as possible. Bankruptcies are a natural result if you load up on risk, and because the bankruptcy code is complex, bankruptcy can even be an opportunity for the financier to restructure his/her investment and push the cost onto employees by seizing the pension.

Elizabeth Warren just put forward a fairly reasonable plan to address the problem. Under her plan, private equity funds who buy companies would themselves responsible for any debt those companies borrow, as well as the pension funds of their subsidiaries. PE firms could no longer pay themselves special fees and dividends, they would lose their special advantages in bankruptcy and in the tax code, and would have to disclose what they charge to investors. Effectively she reunifies ownership with responsibility. Investing would basically become once again about taking modest risks and reaping modest returns, rather than pillaging good companies. (I’d propose a couple of other changes as well, like raising capital gains taxes quite radically, and gutting golden parachutes. We also need to replace capital provided by PE with small business lending by government, as Marco Rubio is organizing. But I don’t want to demand too many policy changes. After all no sense in getting… greedy.)

Warren’s plan has generated some backlash, because she’s making a philosophical point about what kind of society we want to live in. I’ll focus on two quotes from Warren critics.

Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post noted:

"Unfortunately, Warren’s fixes for these problems... would pretty much guarantee that nobody invests in or lends to private equity firms."

Aaron Brown in Bloomberg said:

A 100% tax on fees doesn’t mean PE funds will work for free; in fact, they won’t work at all… If you strip doctors of all assets if a patient dies, you won’t improve healthcare; you’ll make surgeons and oncologists switch to cosmetic dermatology."

Of course, Pearlstein and Brown are both in one sense right. Warren’s plan will largely eliminate private equity, or at least that which is based on legal arbitrage, which is nearly all of it. In another sense they are entirely missing the point. Brown calls PE firms doctors saving patients. But private equity, for Warren, is bad, a form of legalized fraud shifting money from the pockets of investors and workers to the pockets of financiers. It is also, as she knows, the model that best represents the destructive direction of American political economy over the past four decades.

And though it is not really on stage that often, private equity is an important part of our political debate, though the supporters of private equity in politics are so far quiet. And that is because private equity funds are important vectors for political donations.

In the second quarter, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris have all received donations from one or both of the leaders of the country’s top two private-equity firms, Blackstone and the Carlyle Group. Buttigieg received max donations from 11 high-level Blackstone employees, as well as money from Bain Capital and Neuberger Berman. Biden, Booker, and Gillibrand nabbed donations from employees at at least three of the top 15 private-equity firms.

PE funds are job sinecures for out of power elite Democrats and Republicans, a sort of shadow government of financiers who actually do the managing of American corporations while the government futzes around, paralyzed by the corruption PE barons organize.

What critics of PE are proposing is a profound restructuring of the philosophy of the American political economy, a return to excellence in production as the goal instead of excellence in manipulation. If critics succeeds, those who make and create will have their bargaining power increase radically, which will mean wage growth across the bottom and middle tier. Swaths of elite powerful people will lose power. It'll be really jarring, because we aren't used to a producer-focused economic order anymore. But it is what we need to do.

There’s a lot more to discuss about private equity. There’s a whole financing angle, which in itself is ridiculously complicated and fascinating. There are many financiers who aren’t technically private equity funds, but are effectively the same kinds of vectors of fraud and monopolization.

I’m also leaving out one of the most important parts of the stories, which is the 1980s rise of the financing channels for mergers and acquisitions, and how the social world of Wall Street in the 1980s helped create the modern Democratic Party. But that one’s for my book, Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy, which you can pre-order here.

Thanks for reading, and if you enjoy this newsletter, please share it on social media, forward it to your friends, or just sign up here.

cheers,

Matt Stoller

07 Jan 14:37

What is private equity, and why is it killing everything you love?

Taylor Swift on stage at the 2019 AMAs surrounded by other performers and dancers.
Taylor Swift performing at the 2019 American Music Awards. Prior to the show, she fought with a private equity-backed record company to be allowed to perform much of her own music at the show.
Emma McIntyre/AMA2019/Getty Images for dcp

In July 2010, Doug Lowenstein, CEO of lobbying group the Private Equity Council, wrote a letter to PBS NewsHour after a segment it had aired on the private equity industry. He noted some “concerns” the group had with the show’s piece, including that it had ignored “hundreds of examples of PE success stories.” His chosen example: Toys R Us, which had been bought out by a trio of firms in 2005.

“[Y]ou don’t report that Toys ‘R Us was saved from likely bankruptcy by PE owners, that it has more employees working for it than it did before it was acquired, and that it is on the verge of returning to the public equity market,” he wrote.

Toys R Us never went public; it went bankrupt seven years later, in 2017. And all those employees? They lost their jobs.

The Private Equity Council, now rebranded as the American Investment Council, kept trucking along. So did the three firms that bought up Toys R Us — and, eventually, saw it go under.

The private equity industry has been under public scrutiny for years, but lately, it seems like it’s been in the headlines more. Private equity was involved in the downfalls of Payless Shoes, Deadspin, Shopko, and RadioShack. Taylor Swift has placed blame on the “unregulated world of private equity” for a battle over her music. Surprise medical bills? A private equity link. The Hollywood writers’ gripes? Same thing. Politicians are taking notice as well.

Is private equity a giant money monster that eats up companies and spits them out as the husks of what they once were, prioritizing short-term gains over creating long-term value and doing a ton of damage to everyday Americans in the process? Or does it, as some in the industry would suggest, just have a PR problem? Their argument: Sure, sometimes things go wrong, but private equity wouldn’t be in business — and have the money invested it does — if it didn’t often succeed as well. Industry advocates argue they’re taking on risk a lot of other investors would eschew, and it’s only fair they be rewarded.

Is private equity a giant money monster that eats up companies and spits them out as the husks of what they once were?

An AIC spokesperson said in a statement said that private equity firms worked “for years to strengthen and save” Toys R Us and blamed a “challenging retail and e-commerce environment” on its demise. The more cynical read: Maybe Toys R Us would have had a better chance at adapting if it hadn’t been saddled with private equity-induced debt. But of course, we’ll never know.

“Most of the time, private equity firms I do not believe are trying to drive the companies into bankruptcy, but it is what happens enough of the time to be disturbing,” said Josh Kosman, author of The Buyout of America and an expert who appeared in that PBS NewsHour segment back in 2010. “And they certainly aren’t protecting their companies from a rainy day.”

Private equity’s business model hinges on debt. A lot of it.

The term private equity can encompass a lot of different types of firms, including venture capital firms and hedge funds. But for the purposes of this story, and what you’re often hearing about in high-profile cases, we’re talking mainly about leveraged buyouts, where private equity firms buy companies basically by loading them up with debt. (Some of Vox Media’s investors may do leveraged buyouts, but Vox is not a leveraged buyout play.)

Private equity firms are, as their name suggests, private — meaning they’re owned by their founders, managers, or a limited group of investors — and not public — as in traded on the stock market. These organizations buy companies that are struggling or have growth potential and then try to repackage them, speed up their growth, and — theoretically — make them work better. Then, they sell them to another firm, take them public, or find some other way to offload them.

Generally, an ordinary investor isn’t putting their money directly into a private equity fund. Instead, private equity’s investors are institutional ones — meaning pension funds, sovereign governments, and endowments — or accredited investors who meet a certain set of criteria that allow them to make riskier bets (i.e., rich people).

You’ve probably heard of some big-name examples, such as the Carlyle Group (called out by Taylor Swift), Bain Capital (where Mitt Romney spent part of his career, and which was involved in the Toys R Us bankruptcy), KKR (which was reportedly considering taking over Walgreens and was also involved in Toys R Us), and the Blackstone Group (run by Donald Trump ally Stephen Schwarzman). If private equity firms get big enough, they sometimes start to issue stock that’s publicly traded on the broader market — shares of Blackstone, for example, have been trading on the New York Stock Exchange since 2007.

Mitt Romney, when he was chief executive of Bain Capital, a firm he helped start and led for much of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

To explain leveraged buyouts in easier-to-understand terms, let’s say you buy a house. Under normal circumstances, if you can’t pay for the mortgage, you would be in trouble. But by the LBO rules, you’re only responsible for a portion. If you pay for 30 percent of the house, the other 70 percent of the asking price is debt placed on the house. The house owes that money to the bank or creditor who lent it, not you. Of course, a house can’t owe money. But under the private equity model, it does, and its assets — its factories, stores, equipment, etc. — are collateral.

The idea, in theory, behind private equity is that the endeavor will be worth it — for both you and the house. “There are many companies that, if not for private equity, would not be able to get access to the kind of capital they need to scale, to transform, to turn around, and to have succession planning,” said one industry source, who requested anonymity to speak candidly for this story.

But because of the debt companies end up owing creditors as part of a deal, they sometimes find themselves with such high interest payments that they can’t make the investments necessary to be competitive or even stay afloat. Plus, companies often take out additional loans to pay private equity investors dividends, and then they pay a fee if and when they are sold. If they can’t pay off the debt, the companies are on the hook, and their employees and customers are the ones to suffer the consequences.

And private equity’s No. 1 priority isn’t the long-term health of the companies it buys — it’s to make money, and as is the case in so many facets of investing today, to make money fast.

“Some of the larger private equity firms, they’re not retaining investments in the long-term. They are designed to produce short-term returns, and if there is nothing left of the company at the end, that’s okay,” said Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) in an interview.

Porter represents a district the AIC touts as a success case for private equity creating jobs and making investments. She believes its methodology for calculating job creation is “highly suspect,” and it still doesn’t mean the leveraged buyout model is good: “Some of the companies they work for are owned by private equity, but that doesn’t tell us whether their family would be better off if it was on the public markets.”

“They are designed to produce short-term returns, and if there is nothing left of the company at the end, that’s okay.”

The retail industry has arguably been one of the most high-profile case studies for private equity in recent years, and you can see this setup play out again and again. People within the industry will tell you that companies such as Payless, Sears, and Toys R Us struggled because of competition from Amazon and Walmart.

But critics note that because private equity-owned companies are saddled with such a huge amount of debt, they often can’t even attempt to make the investments they need to try to keep up. Private equity’s objective, in theory, is that the company will earn enough and grow fast enough to pay down the debt to a healthy amount. But a lot of that time, that’s not what happens.

“Yes, the markets are changing. Yes, competition is difficult. But if you can retain your own resources and make the necessary investments, yes, you can compete,” said Eileen Appelbaum, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and an expert on private equity.

In an article for the American Prospect in 2018, Appelbaum and fellow researcher Rosemary Batt compared grocery chains Albertsons, which is held by private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, and Kroger, which has a more conventional structure. Their findings: Kroger has been able to weather the current economic landscape better than Albertsons because it has less debt. At least Albertsons is still afloat — the pair notes that tens of thousands of jobs have been lost on account of private equity-owned grocery bankruptcies in recent years.

“If you can retain your own resources and make the necessary investments, yes, you can compete.”

The controversy surrounding private equity is that whatever happens to the company acquired, private equity makes money anyway. Firms generally have a 2-20 fee structure, which means they get a 2 percent management fee from their investors and then a 20 percent performance fee on the money they make from their deals. Basically, if an investment goes well, they get 20 percent of that. But regardless of what happens, they get 2 percent of the money they’re managing altogether, which is a lot. According to data from consultancy firm McKinsey, the global private equity industry’s asset value has grown to nearly $6 trillion.

Moreover, private equity firms can take out additional loans through their leveraged companies to pay dividends to themselves and their investors, and the companies are on the hook for those loans too. The share of profits private equity managers earn, carried interest, gets special tax treatment, and is taxed at a lower rate than regular income.

It’s heads I win, tails you lose.

Private equity isn’t always bad, but when it fails, it often fails big

Those within the industry will tell you that private equity’s goal is not to bankrupt companies or to do harm. But sometimes, that’s just what happens: Researchers at California Polytechnic State University recently found that about 20 percent of public companies that go private through leveraged buyouts go bankrupt within 10 years, compared to a control group’s 2 percent bankruptcy rate over the same time period.

Moody’s found that after the financial crisis, from 2008 to 2013, companies owned by top private equity firms defaulted on their loans at about the same rate as other companies. However, in megadeals where more than $10 billion of debt was involved, private equity-backed companies performed much worse.

Even an industry-friendly study out of the University of Chicago found that employment shrinks by 4.4 percent two years after companies are bought by private equity, and worker wages fall by 1.7 percent. The type of company matters as well — employment shrinks by 13 percent when a publicly traded company is bought by private equity, but it increases by the same percentage if the company is already private. The researchers found that labor productivity increases by 8 percent over two years.

Protesters from the Sensata Technologies plant in Freeport, Illinois, outside the offices of Bain Capital.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

That it is sometimes harmful to the companies it buys and, by extension, the people who work there doesn’t mean it’s not lucrative. After all, there’s a reason so many investors are parking their money in these firms. “If it were such a terrible thing, it wouldn’t have grown so big,” said Steve Kaplan, a professor and private equity expert at the University of Chicago. Blackstone, for example, made $14 billion from its investment in Hilton.

But a good deal for investors does not always translate to a good deal for other stakeholders, including employees and consumers.

Take a look at Deadspin, the sports blog that flamed out in spectacular fashion this fall just months after its parent company, Gizmodo Media Group, was acquired by private equity firm Great Hill Partners in April.

Megan Greenwell, the site’s former editor-in-chief, told me that initially the firm gave employees the impression that they were only concerned about the business side, “which had been decimated,” and didn’t plan on touching editorial.

But soon it became clear that was not the case. She said the site’s new owners didn’t appear to have much of an interest in learning about what they did or what, historically, had and hadn’t worked. “The extent to which nobody could ever articulate what their plan was ... they wanted to just cut and cut and cut, which can work up to a point, but where the growth in revenue was going to come from was unclear,” she said.

Greenwell left Deadspin in August. After the site’s new managers instructed writers to “stick to sports” in an October memo, the staff resigned en masse. Deadspin stopped publishing new stories on November 4. A screenshot I viewed of Deadspin’s mid-morning traffic on December 4 showed about 400 people were currently viewing the site. Before, that number would generally be in the 10,000 to 20,000 range.

“The extent to which nobody could ever articulate what their plan was... they wanted to just cut and cut and cut.”

Representatives of Great Hill and G/O Media did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

What happened with Deadspin is emblematic of what is often a flaw in private equity, especially when it comes to big firms: They can get involved in businesses they’re not well-versed in. The Carlyle Group and other investors probably didn’t know what they were getting into when they helped producer Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings buy Taylor Swift’s catalog. A decade ago, private equity firm Terra Firma learned a hard lesson when it took over music group EMI, dropped a bunch of artists to try to save money, and saw that deal turn into a disaster.

“The big private equity firms that have no idea about the particular industries in which they are investing, they think they can have this cookie-cutter model and make money. That’s where we’re seeing these terrible models happen,” Appelbaum said.

Great Hill Partners, for example, is also an investor in Bombas socks and online test proctoring company Examity.

This isn’t to say that all private equity deals and firms are bad. A lot of even the bigger firms are split into verticals by industry in the hopes of lending expertise to the companies they acquire. And there are plenty of small private equity firms out there that specialize in specific fields and make investments in relatively small companies where there is a lot of room for improvement. But those types of deals generally aren’t publicized. Small deals are “the bulk of the deals, but that’s not the bulk of the money,” Appelbaum said. Or where most workers are employed.

“Whether you’re big or small now, almost all of them are organized by industry, so when they invest, they ought to know what they’re investing in. Whether they do or not is a question,” Kaplan said.

Washington is taking notice of this, including the human cost — but it’s not clear what, if anything, will happen

Attention on the private equity industry from lawmakers has ebbed and flowed over the years, and right now, it’s under the microscope.

In July, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) rolled out a plan and accompanying legislation — the Stop Wall Street Looting Act of 2019 — taking direct aim at the sector. Her proposal would overhaul how private equity collects fees, who’s responsible for an acquired company’s debt, and how stakeholders are paid in the event a company does go bankrupt. It would also close the carried interest loophole that keeps private equity’s taxes so low. While Warren’s bill wouldn’t end private equity, it would change incentives and force firms to have more skin in the game.

Warren and other members of Congress have called out the private equity industry over its activities in a wide range of sectors in recent months, including election technology, deforestation, and nursing homes. The House Financial Services Committee, headed by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), held a hearing on private equity in November.

One private equity associate told me that at an industry conference he had recently attended, presenters framed Warren’s criticism and broader critiques of the sector as a public relations problem. He said the idea of investors being on the hook for a company’s debt was a “laugh line,” but there was an acknowledgment of the optics. “To the extent that this is what people’s view of private equity is, that’s not good for the industry or for the investors,” he said.

Emily Mendell, managing director at the Institutional Limited Partners Association (ILPA), a trade association for private equity investors, told me that it’s happened often over the years that certain headline or political events — such as the Toys R Us bankruptcy or Warren’s plan — have shined a light on the industry that is “accentuated due to the news nature of that event.” And it’s not always easy to push back. “It’s hard to tell a positive story when the negative stories — the few negative stories — will get all the press,” she said. “Private equity can’t counter what Elizabeth Warren says on the back of a bumper sticker.”

“To the extent that this is what people’s view of private equity is, that’s not good for the industry or for the investors.”

That doesn’t mean they’re not trying.

The American Investment Council (that private equity lobbying group that touted Toys R Us) has been taking out ads and writing op-eds pegged to the super-popular Popeyes chicken sandwich and pointing out the restaurant’s private equity ties. It also commissioned a report from consultancy Ernst & Young on private equity’s economic contributions that says the sector created 8.8 million jobs and its workers make on average $71,000 a year. Critics note that the $71,000 average includes people at the very top who make millions of dollars a year.

Private equity doesn’t want Congress looking too closely at their industry, but some firms are willing to quietly lobby to advantage themselves. In August, Porter, the California representative, received a mailer to her home encouraging her constituents to call her to tell her to vote against bipartisan legislation aimed at stopping surprise medical billing. It framed the bill as “rate setting” and was from a benign-sounding group called Doctor Patient Unity. It was later revealed that the group funded by two private-equity-backed companies that would lose money if the bill were passed.

A mailer sent to Rep. Katie Porter’s home in Orange County, California, from Doctor Patient Unity, a private equity-backed group.
Courtesy of the office of Rep. Katie Porter

Private equity sources I spoke with acknowledge that the industry has a bad reputation and that there are some bad actors — but they tend to insist that they, specifically, are doing things right, or at least trying. “In how the industry has been described, it has been painted with a very broad brush,” one of the industry sources said.

While people in the private equity industry may be complaining that it’s been unfairly caricatured, they’re not the victims. The victims are the workers who are collateral damage in deals gone bad. All those Deadspin writers who walked away from their jobs in solidarity are entering an extremely tough journalism environment right now. Just ask anyone who ever dreamed of working in local media.

More than 30,000 Toys R Us employees lost their jobs when it went bankrupt. Initially, they weren’t paid severance, even when the private equity firms walked away with millions. After months of protest, two of the investors — Bain and KKR — gave a combined $20 million to an employee severance fund, but the third investor, Vornado, abstained. According to one recent study, US retailers owned by private equity firms and hedge funds have laid off nearly 600,000 workers over the past 10 years alone.

Private equity may not be the boogeyman it’s made out to be, but it can certainly do some harm.

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07 Jan 13:35

Engage your audience with constructive journalism

workshop.jpg

Credit: Mousetrap Media/Christina Jansen


How can news organisations inspire positive change when the public is so saturated with negative news, that a third of us are avoiding it altogether?

News avoidance makes it difficult for journalism to be heard, and it is only made harder today when you add new platforms into the mix, each with another set of algorithms and filter bubbles to contend with.

These struggles, amongst others, are what the Constructive Journalism Network (CJN) seeks to answer, according to its co-founder Cathrine Gyldensted, who delivered a workshop at the 25th Newsrewired conference.

Constructive journalism is increasingly being used as a way to engage and grow audiences. News organisations such as The New York Times, De Correspondent, Die Zeit and The Guardian are now all giving it a go. In her workshop, Gyldensted introduced journalists to a few constructive approaches to bring into their newsroom.

'If it bleeds, it leads'

To compete with virality, journalists must first understand what makes a story go viral. Viral stories are provocative and make use of intense emotions; negatives ones such as anger or fear, as well as positive ones like awe and hope. The problem is that it is the negative emotions which dominate the news cycle and cause audiences to switch off.

Appealing to populist outrage is nothing new; TV news' most well-known saying is 'If it bleeds, it leads'. But what has happened in recent years is that the internet has exacerbated its effect.

We see this in action online, as readers are quick to click and share content which plays into these emotions. The media, however, is often blind to the consequences of this negativity bias. It can paralyse our audiences or justify their worst impulses.

Identify your own negativity bias

However, Gyldensted provided an alternative: in groups of four or five, we thought about stories which we or our colleagues had written, and were guilty of playing into these negative emotions.

My mind ran immediately to my home country of Australia, where a friend of mine was busy putting together an article about the New South Wales Government’s (NSW) under-funding of the Rural Fire Service and its devastating consequences.

The piece described a systemic reduction in capital expenditure budgets over many years and laid bare the aftermath of the devastating 2019 bushfires. Its appeal lay in a portrait of government failure, hoping to tap into anger, fear, and grief to find an audience. It was, in short, deeply negative.

Flip the narrative

Then, we were invited to turn the piece of its head. Gyldensted encouraged us to apply the principles of constructive journalism to reframe the article from something emphasising victimhood and tragedy, to focusing on solutions and reconstruction.

As an example, she cited the case of Finnish broadcaster Yle. Having run a story on negligence in elderly care, a series of pieces followed where they consulted with elderly care professionals and viewers nationwide on how to improve the system going forward. Then, they ran an additional piece asking: 'Is it possible to completely transform a nursing home in four months?'

This became the foundation for a reality television series where they tried to do just that, following three coaches who attempted to reform the practices and goals of a nursing home, eventually succeeding, and using the experience as an example for wider reform across elderly care in Finland.

The central question Yle seemed to be asking themselves, at every point, was: 'How could we make this story best serve the social good?'

This changed their coverage entirely. Instead of exposing wrongdoing, it became about repairing its ill-effects. Instead of fuelling outrage, it encouraged a way forward collaboratively.

Cover the other half of the story

In the case of the Australian bushfires, we determined that the angle originally presented (funding cuts by the NSW government) was only half the story. The second half should focus on fixing the problem, like Yle did.

Are there ways to show where funds and equipment were most needed, like with a map or visualisation? Could the piece outline ways to aid the Rural Fire Service both as a donor and as a volunteer?

Importantly, I learned that outrage is not counter-intuitive to constructive journalism, so long as it has a vision. Constructive journalism is optimistic, but it does not have to be happy. It needs an action point at the end of the article which signals better times ahead, even the current outlook is bleak. Acknowledging the problem is often the starting point.

Could we determine which budget constraints and specific bills caused the problem, and how your local representative voted on these crucial decisions? Had we done this from the beginning, could we have paved the way to prevent similar outbreaks?

Take ownership of the problem

It is journalists, ultimately, who give sensational journalism the needed oxygen to go viral - but as we said at the beginning, both negative and positive emotions have the potential to make stories go viral. Indeed, solutions-based reporting can be some of the most sought-after content, and much healthier for our readers.

At the same conference where Gyldensted introduced me to constructive journalism, mobile journalist Yusuf Omar said: “If the pen was mightier than the sword, then the mobile phone is our atomic agent of change.”

The comparison should give us pause, and make us think about the importance for journalists and publishers be heard at a time of news avoidance and the abundance of social media platforms. But also because of our responsibility to hold power to account. it seems like constructive journalism, with a focus on building bridges and finding solutions, is something audiences are listening to.

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07 Jan 12:38

How the remnants of About.com are stealthily taking over the internet

by Aaron Cohen

On Bagel Thursdays, Dotdash convenes its weekly growth meeting in a conference room overlooking Times Square. At 9 o’clock on a bright September morning, a dozen or so editors, an analytics guru, and the company’s top two operating executives discuss plans to enhance Dotdash’s vast content archive of more than 250,000 “super articles,” company parlance for stories that synthesize prose, videos, images, and illustrations about a panoply of American obsessions, including investment strategy, home decorating, personal finance, and medical information. The meeting is a brisk rundown of challenges and milestones.

Maybe you’ve never even heard of Dotdash, but its service content reaches about 90 million Americans a month.

At a time when digital media companies are faltering, Dotdash is growing: in audience, head count, and revenue. The company oversees a collection of nearly a dozen lifestyle-focused websites that cover such evergreen topics as tech (Lifewire), health (Verywell), travel (TripSavvy), and personal finance and investing (The Balance, Investopedia). Collectively, Dotdash’s sites have increased traffic by 44% year over year in Q3 2019. Driven by advertising and e-commerce, the company’s annual revenue grew by 44% in 2018 and 34% as reported in Q3 2019 earnings. While other media companies are shuttering sites and titles, Dotdash has been expanding, scooping up Byrdie (beauty) and MyDomaine (home) from Clique Media in January before taking the legendary Brides brand off Condé Nast’s hands in May and buying the cocktail-focused Liquor.com in October from founder Kit Codik.

This is a surprising shopping spree—given that Dotdash only exists because four years ago its owners decided to pull the plug on its once-popular precursor.

That site was About.com, founded (originally as the Mining Company) in 1996 by digital media pioneer Scott Kurnit, whose big bet—that search engines would propel distribution—proved prescient with the arrival of Google a couple of years later. Kurnit hired a team of editors and built a network of contributors to craft articles on a wide range of popular topics, tailoring content long before the phrase “search engine optimization” even existed.
The site thrived through two sales—to Primedia in 2000 and to the New York Times Company in 2005—until the Great Recession, changes in Google’s algorithms, and the rise of Facebook wreaked havoc on digital media. Focused on saving its core business, the Times sold About.com to Barry Diller’s digital media conglomerate, IAC, in 2012.

Joey Levin was the IAC executive who greenlit the acquisition. He knew the perfect candidate to revitalize About.com – Neil Vogel. A native Philadelphian and Wharton alum, Vogel began his career as an investment banker before joining the first wave of Internet entrepreneurs. He had early success in both e-commerce and media and later founded Recognition Media, which develops and produces awards shows, including The Webby awards.

Optimizing About.com’s deep archive of carefully crafted articles on a wide range of subjects intrigued Vogel because it ran counter to the trends of the social- and video-besotted digital media industry.”

Vogel was initially wary of the pitch. Historically, he knew, declining internet companies fail. But the opportunity – optimizing About.com’s deep archive of carefully crafted articles on a wide range of subjects – intrigued Vogel because it ran counter to the trends of the social- and video-besotted digital media industry. After accepting Levin’s offer, Vogel immediately recruited two former colleagues, CFO Tim Quinn, an American Express veteran and COO Alex Ellerson, formerly of Yahoo and Google. “I needed a certain DNA that had grit and resilience,” Vogel says. “Tim and Alex could attract people with the right attitude. We wanted people who were fearless and thought saving this company would be fun.”

Vogel’s team rebuilt the technology, redesigned content, hired, fired, and launched countless experiments to stanch About.com’s declining audience. Yet traffic continued to plummet and revenue tanked. The company missed its forecasts for nine straight quarters.

“About was no longer of service to Internet users,” Ellerson concluded.

In the fall of 2015, the Dotdash leadership sat across from Levin, who by then had ascended to the role of CEO at IAC, and pitched their new plan: sunset the About.com portal, redesign more than one million articles that would be redirected into vertically focused brands. Vogel wanted Dotdash to reemerge as a modern Condé Nast.

Levin was skeptical. “I told them the URL [about.com] was the best asset we owned,” he recalled. “But I had hired Neil in part for his passion. Plus, what did we have to lose? The content had value and, as a company, we don’t like to give up.” Vogel asked for $35 million and six months to radically relaunch as Dotdash.

This transformation led to something extraordinary in digital media—a turnaround. While other independent media companies were engineering their coverage around social media, video, and trending topics, Dotdash doubled down on text-based articles about enduring topics and avoided cluttering them with ads—a strategy that Daniel Kurnos, an analyst at the investment bank Benchmark, credits with boosting Dotdash content in search results. (He calls IAC an “algorithmically elite” company for its deep understanding of how to infiltrate search engines.)

“People call us a tech company, but the reality is we are a publisher,” says Vogel. Dotdash developed a formula that Vogel has turned into a corporate mantra: the freshest content on the fastest sites with the fewest ads.

By focusing on text rather than 24/7 social responsiveness or expensive video production, the company keeps its costs down. More than 1,000 remote, part-time contributors across the brands use tools built by Ellerson’s team to help identify story ideas that resonate with audiences. Traffic to the sites has increased from 45 million visitors per month in 2016 to more than 90 million in August of last year, according to Vogel. Dotdash sites run fewer ads, with no pop-ups or takeovers, and because the ads are relevant to each article, they perform better. At a time when digital ad rates have continued to crater for most online publishers, Vogel says the company’s ad rates have increased nearly 20 percent each year since 2016, and 25 percent of 2019 revenue came from affiliate marketing fees (bonuses paid to the publisher after Dotdash visitors made purchases via ads on the sites.)

The sites load very quickly, and the company’s proprietary content management system is designed for efficiency: Designers and editors can choose from fast-loading templates that include images, video, and interactive applications. And there’s an emphasis on creating the kinds of detailed, informative articles that turn up in search results. At Verywell, for example, each article is updated at least once every nine months and reviewed by medical professionals.

Dotdash’s emphasis on human-created content makes it almost the anti-Google. Everything is designed to empower the content creators. “The work we do at Dotdash is highly specialized, requiring a subjective understanding of quality and substantial subject matter expertise,” Ellerson says. This emphasis on quality editorial, Dotdash executives say, has powered the turnaround.

The company will not disclose what it pays writers although it does not pay by the word as is traditional for publishing. Advertisements on Jobvite, Media Bistro and Facebook quote rates for writers “that generally meet or exceed 10 cents per word,” and hourly rates in the $15-$25 range for editors. Hardly Conde Nast-level compensation (during print’s heyday, magazine writers frequently commanded fees in excess of a dollar per word), but on par with typical current rates for digital editorial talent. Most of its contributors are not journalists but rather professionals or subject matter experts moonlighting as content creators and promoting the work they do for Dotdash to burnish their reputations. The sites all share design, technology and sales resources. Dotdash claims to have spent $100mm on content since the turnaround began, including $35 million in 2019.

We are taking a Netflix approach to content creation. We are spending more money on service-based articles than any other media company.”

Neil Vogel, CEO, Dotdash
“We are taking a Netflix approach to content creation,” says Vogel, sitting in his office situated midway between the great 20th-century magazine companies Conde Nast and Hearst. “We are spending more money on service-based articles than any other media company.”

Vogel has returned to his roots as a dealmaker and the media industry has plenty of distressed assets. Last May, Dotdash bought CondeNast’s Brides magazine, shuttered the print version, absorbed the separate editorial team, imported the articles into their content management system, and relaunched on the Dotdash platform.

“Dotdash is the only growing, profitable, digital publisher I can think of,” says Levin. IAC says DotDash would nearly double revenue ($170 million) and EBITDA ($40 million) in 2019.

Media companies beholden to Facebook and Google for distribution remain vulnerable because one algorithmic twitch can destroy your traffic. What if Google started showing large snippets of its content inside the search results and this triggered a decline in traffic? Vogel hears this criticism multiple times a week, but he thinks digital executives should focus on good content and traffic will follow.

“Our job is to make great content that loads quickly with relevant non-intrusive advertising,” he insists. “If we execute, the search results will be fine.” His critics call this naive, but Vogel is trying to build a billion-dollar publishing business, not a search colossus. He’s betting that Google will drive traffic to the best content.

The 20th-century magazine houses built iconic brands – Time, Vogue, Cosmopolitan – that monetized through their shaping of the cultural zeitgeist. Rachel Berman, the vice president and general manager of Dotdash’s most successful vertical, the health-focused Verywell, regularly attends dinner parties where the guests are impressed if not stunned that her site reaches 10 percent of Americans and they’ve never heard of it. But they know WebMD.

For Vogel, this is the next frontier for growth. “Today our traffic substantially outpaces our brand awareness,” he admits. “We have nearly 100 million in our audience, and it’s doubled in the past three years, and people still don’t know our brands. We have so much room to grow.”

On the media

The seeds for Dotdash’s success were sown 20 years ago.

1994: Yahoo launches

1996: The Mining Company is founded.

1996: Slate is founded.

1998: Google debuts.

1999: The Mining Company rebrands as About.com.

2000: About.com is acquired by Primedia for $690 million in stock.

2000: The dotcom bubble bursts.

2002: Gawker is founded.

2004: TheFacebook launches.

2005: The New York Times Company purchases About.com from Primedia for $410 million.

2006: Twitter goes live; BuzzFeed launches.

2008: The Great Recession begins.

2010: Instagram debuts.

2011: Snapchat launches.

2012: IAC acquires About.com for $300 million.

2013: Neil Vogel becomes CEO of About.com.

2014: Vox News and Gimlet Media are founded.

2016: Verizon acquires Yahoo; Gawker folds.

2017: About.com is rebranded Dotdash, launching five different verticals.

2018: IAC folds Investopedia under Dotdash, laying off a third of Investopedia’s staff.

2018: Meredith Corp. buys Time Inc.

2019: Dotdash acquires Brides from Condé Nast, shuttering the print title.

A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2019/2020 issue of Fast Company magazine.

07 Jan 10:46

Dining out in 2019: The world came to Tokyo, and the city answered

The Christmas trees are packed away and the New Year kadomatsu decorations are now in place. The city is winding down for the holidays, to rest and recharge for the year ahead. But before we leave 2019 behind, there’s just time to look back on the past 12 months of dining out in Tokyo. And to wish all The Japan Times’ readers good luck, good health and good eating in the year ahead.

A major highlight of 2019 has been the remarkable Cook Japan Project in Nihonbashi. Housed in the erstwhile premises of Sant Pau, this revolving series of premium pop-ups has brought in some of the world’s finest chefs, including Yannick Alleno (Paris), Alex Atala (Sao Paulo) and Dani Garcia (Marbella, Spain).

The world's best are Tokyo-bound: Three-Michelin-star chef Mauro Colagreco held a sold-out residency in Tokyo in December for Cook Japan Project. | COURTESY OF COOK JAPAN PROJECT
The world’s best are Tokyo-bound: Three-Michelin-star chef Mauro Colagreco held a sold-out residency in Tokyo in December for Cook Japan Project. | COURTESY OF COOK JAPAN PROJECT

It reached a memorable crescendo this month with a sold-out, six-day residency by Mauro Colagreco from Restaurant Mirazur (Menton, southeast France), which won its third Michelin star this year and topped the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. But it’s not over yet: Before closing in late January, it will host Vladimir Mukhin (Moscow), Virgilio Martinez (Lima) and a one-night-only final appearance by the legendary founder of Sant Pau, Carme Ruscalleda (Catalonia).

When it comes to new restaurants, there have been too many to keep track of. Media focus has been on the high-rise malls mushrooming in Shibuya: first Shibuya Scramble Square; then Shibuya Parco; and lastly the reborn Tokyu Plaza, which features (among others) a new branch of Akomeya Kitchen, here called Akomeya Shokudo, and an open-air viewing platform complete with a sleek, modern bao bar by Singapore’s Ce La Vie.

Other notable openings include three standouts: Sushi Shin by Miyakawa (in Nihonbashi), Sushi Wakon (Hibiya) and Sushi M (Omotesando/Aoyama). The new ShinoiS in Shirokanedai features contemporary Cantonese cuisine by chef Hiroyuki Shinohara, formerly at Lohotoi in Hiroo and Hei Fung Terrace. And fans of South Indian cooking will be happy to know that Nirvanam now has a branch in Ginza.

In March, tonkatsu (pork cutlet) master Seizo Mitani closed Narikura, his hugely popular basement in Takadanobaba, resurfacing in July in residential Minamiasagaya. His premium pork cutlets are pricier now, and you need to book online ahead of time, which has eliminated the long waiting times. The original Narikura has since reopened under one of Mitani’s apprentices, now with a first-come first-served ticket queue system, which has made the lines more manageable.

Can't keep a good oden down: Otafuku's oden master, Sakae Funadaiku | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Can’t keep a good oden down: Otafuku’s oden master, Sakae Funadaiku | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Meanwhile, century-old oden specialist Otafuku has finally returned home, after over two years in temporary digs. The good news is that the beautiful copper simmering pans are back where they belong; the sad news is that the classic, timeless atmosphere of the old place is lost forever.

There was plenty of movement by more big-ticket names, too. Sant Pau marked its 15th anniversary by relocating to the gleaming new Kitano Hotel (near Nagatacho), and held on to its two Michelin stars. Chef Kotaro Meguro did likewise with his French seafood cuisine at Abysse, retaining his star despite his move to a plusher setting in the Ebisu/Daikanyama area.

This year saw the end of many favorites: Since Esquisse Cinq closed its doors, award-winning patissier Kazutoshi Narita has been working at the La Liste-topping Sugalabo in Kamiyacho. Moving down-market, many a glass was raised in sayonara to the classic no-frills standing bar Fujiya Honten and its Grill Bar, as it finally fell victim to Shibuya’s relentless redevelopment. Pappon Kitchen‘s excellent home-style Thai cooking has also gone, replaced by Fuku-Daitouryou’s fiery pork vindaloo.

Anticipated openings: Atsuki Kuroda will open Caveman in February 2020 — watch this space | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Anticipated openings: Atsuki Kuroda will open Caveman in February 2020 — watch this space | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Tokyo also said farewell to two legendary characters with massive legacies. Following chef Kenichiro Nishi’s passing in the summer, Kyoaji (Shinbashi) has now served its last meal. Natural wine advocate Shinsaku Katsuyama will also be sadly missed, but fans will be reassured to know his life’s work lives on at his pioneering wine bar Shonzui (Roppongi).

Looking ahead, 2020 promises to be another busy year, with several major projects on their way. In Harajuku, the Gyre building will open a beautiful new dining floor. Chef Kan Morieda has parted from Salmon & Trout, but we’ll be seeing plenty from him in the new year. And patissier Natsuko Shoji has just moved her tiny, exclusive restaurant Ete to a smarter and slightly larger space in Shibuya.

In another exciting project, a refurbished old financial building in Nihonbashi’s Kabutocho area will become home to a number of new bars and restaurants. Look out for Caveman, a spinoff of Kabi with Atsuki Kuroda (ex-Maaemo in Oslo) at the helm. Opening in February, it’s going to be great.

07 Jan 08:02

Iran Has Already Hacked the U.S. At Least 4 Times — and Could Do It Again

by David Gilbert

In 2014, Tehran hackers crippled the casinos of outspoken billionaire conservative and big-time President Trump donor Sheldon Adelson after he suggested the U.S. nuke Iran.

Now, in the wake of Trump’s decision to assassinate the man widely seen as the country’s second most powerful leader, experts fear Iran is set to retaliate once again in cyberspace.

The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike last week has led to an outpouring of grief and dire warnings of “forceful revenge” from Tehran.

Iran knows that it cannot stand toe-to-toe with the U.S. when it comes to military might, but Tehran has a long history of successfully attacking American targets in cyberspace and has spent the last decade honing its skills and making preparations for a major cyberattack against critical U.S. infrastructure.

"They probe American infrastructure routinely, so if they'd make up their mind that this is what they want to do, they could do something," James Lewis, senior vice president and director of the technology policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News. “They will look for vulnerable targets, that will be the smaller agencies the smaller companies.”

Iran’s decision to boost its cyber capabilities was sparked by the Stuxnet attack on its Natanz uranium enrichment facility in 2007, an attack jointly conducted by the U.S. and Israel.

The sophisticated malware infected the plant’s control systems forcing up to 1,000 of its centrifuges to spin out of control, hindering the ability to produce uranium for weapons.

Since then Iran’s government has put significant resources into developing its own cyber army, who have shown themselves to be innovative and adept at conducting campaigns across the globe

Here’s where they’ve struck the U.S. before:

  • 2010-2011: In the wake of the Stuxnet attack, Iranian hackers responded by launching a series of distributed denial of service attacks that wreaked havoc on JP Morgan, Bank of America, and Capital One, leaving hundreds of thousands of customers unable to access their accounts for hours-long stretches over multiple days. The attacks also affected the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq.
  • 2013: Iranian hackers remotely took control of the command-and-control network of a dam just outside New York. The access would have allowed the hackers to remotely release water from the dam, but the sluice gate had been manually disconnected at the time for maintenance. Seven Iranians were charged with the intrusion in 2016.
  • 2014: Iranian hackers were behind an attack on one of Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas casinos, crippling IT systems, knocking phone systems offline and rendering computers and servers unusable. The outspoken conservative billionaire, who was a major supporter of President Trump’s election campaign, was targeted after he advocated for the use of nuclear weapons against Iran.
  • 2018: Iranian hackers were blamed for crippling the city of Atlanta with SamSam ransomware, and costing the city millions to clean-up. The attack on Atlanta was one of just hundreds perpetrated by Iranian hackers against U.S. targets. Two Iranians were indicted by the Department of Justice in 2018 but remain at large.

READ: Here’s Everything You Need to Know About the Situation in Iran Right Now

Iran may not be on the same level as China, Russia or the U.S. when it comes to offensive cyber skills, but these efforts have shown that it can be a highly capable and destructive force willing to attack targets on U.S. soil.

In recent years, Iran’s cyberattacks have for the most part been focused on adversaries in the Middle East, including Saudi Aramco, which was hit with a massively destructive wiper attack that destroyed the data stored on 30,000 computers.

But more recent discoveries point to moves by Tehran to position itself to strike at the very heart of the U.S. by targeting critical national infrastructure, including power grids and government agencies. Now, the death of Soleimani could be the trigger to launch this attack.

Probing networks

A trio of reports in June last year highlighted that an Iranian government-sponsored hacking group known as APT33 (also known as Refined Kitten, Holmium, or Elfin) has been targeting the U.S. government agencies and private companies with targeted spear-phishing attacks.

Among the targets for this campaign was the Department of Energy and U.S. national labs.

READ: Here's what war with Iran would actually look like

Then, in November, Microsoft revealed that the same hacking group had been targeting companies who build industrial control systems, the computers that are used to control and monitor critical national infrastructures such as power grids and nuclear power plants.

"They‘re trying to find the downstream customer, to find out how they work and who uses them,” Ned Moran, a Microsoft security researcher, told Wired at the time. “They’re looking to inflict some pain on someone’s critical infrastructure that makes use of these control systems.”

As a result, when Soulemiani was killed on Friday, the U.S. government immediately re-upped a warning it first issued last year about the threat from Iranian hackers.

So far, no attacks have been detected. Michael Daniel, president and CEO of the Cyber Threat Alliance, an umbrella group that brings together experts in the field to try and combat common threats, said none of his members are reporting an uptick in hacking activity.

“That doesn't necessarily mean there isn't activity; it could be that we haven't seen it yet, it's still not at a broad enough scale to be detected, or defenders haven't attributed the activity yet,” said Daniel, who also served as President Obama’s cybersecurity coordinator.

READ: Young Iraqis aren’t sad Soleimani is dead. But they worry they’ll pay the price

While there has been some speculation that Iran could infiltrate major government agencies, knock out large swathes of the power grid or take phone networks offline, the reality is that the agencies and companies operating these networks have put in place relatively robust defenses in recent years that Iranian hackers would find almost impossible to breach.

But there are plenty of other targets for Tehran to focus on:

“The big companies are probably too well defended now for the Iranians,” Lewis said. “But that doesn't mean they aren't lots of targets out there and that could include government agencies because there are dozens of government agencies — and the Department of Defence has hundreds of individual networks — and some of them are not going to be in good shape.”

Cover: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left 6), Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (left 5), Soleimani's long-time lieutenant and the new leader of Quds Force Gen. Esmail Qaani (left 7), Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Hossein Salami (left 3) and Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani (left 4) attend the funeral ceremony of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Forces, who was killed in a U.S. drone airstrike in Iraq, in Tehran, Iran on January 06, 2019. (Photo by Iranian Leader Press Office / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

07 Jan 07:36

The last tracker was just removed from Basecamp.com

by DHH

Can you believe we used to willingly tell Google about every single visitor to basecamp.com by way of Google Analytics? Letting them collect every last byte of information possible through the spying eye of their tracking pixel. Ugh.

But 2020 isn’t 2010. Our naiveté around data, who captures it, and what they do with it has collectively been brought to shame. Most people now sit with basic understanding that using the internet leaves behind a data trail, and quite a few people have begun to question just how deep that trail should be, and who should have the right to follow it.

In this new world, it feels like an obligation to make sure we’re not aiding and abetting those who seek to exploit our data. Those who hoard every little clue in order to piece of together a puzzle that’ll ultimately reveal all our weakest points and moments, then sell that picture to the highest bidder.

The internet needs to know less about us, not more. Just because it’s possible to track someone doesn’t mean we should.

That’s the ethos we’re trying to live at Basecamp. It’s not a straight path. Two decades of just doing as you did takes a while to unwind. But we’re here for that work.

Every request is now served from our own domains

Last year we stopped using pixel trackers in our Basecamp emails. This year we’re celebrating the start of a new decade by dropping the last third-party tracking pixel on basecamp.com. Now when you visit our marketing page, you only have to trust that we won’t abuse that data – not a laundry list of third parties you have no reasonable chance of vetting.

We still track that someone visited our page, but it’s really only the basics that interest us. How many people visited the page? Did a new pitch work better than the old? How many people signed up? Basic stuff like that. And basic stuff doesn’t require overly sophisticated tooling, so it’s fine that our homegrown package isn’t nearly as fancy or as piercing as offerings like Google Analytics. It doesn’t need to be.

We still aren’t entirely free of Google’s long data arm, though. You can still sign-in with Google, though we’d encourage you to switch to our new two-factor authenticated, WebAuth-capable in-house system. We’ll be deprecating the Sign-In With Google path entirely soon enough.

We also still use a variety of other data processors, like Customer.io, for onboarding emails. But going forward, the analysis for when that makes sense has absolutely changed. It’s no longer enough for something to be slightly more convenient or slightly cheaper for us to send data out of the house. Fewer dependencies, fewer processors, fewer eyes on our data and that of our customers is a powerful consideration all of its own.

Untangling yourself from the old paradigm of data is neither quick, easy, nor free. But it’s worth doing, even if you can only do it one step at the time. Think about what steps you could take in 2020.

07 Jan 07:34

Guide To Using Reverse Image Search For Investigations

Reverse image search is one of the most well-known and easiest digital investigative techniques, with two-click functionality of choosing “Search Google for image” in many web browsers. This method has also seen widespread use in popular culture, perhaps most notably in the MTV show Catfish, which exposes people in online relationships who use stolen photographs on their social media.

However, if you only use Google for reverse image searching, you will be disappointed more often than not. Limiting your search process to uploading a photograph in its original form to just images.google.com may give you useful results for the most obviously stolen or popular images, but for most any sophisticated research project, you need additional sites at your disposal — along with a lot of creativity.

This guide will walk through detailed strategies to use reverse image search in digital investigations, with an eye towards identifying people and locations, along with determining an image’s progeny. After detailing the core differences between the search engines, Yandex, Bing, and Google are tested on five test images showing different objects and from various regions of the world.

Beyond Google

The first and most important piece of advice on this topic cannot be stressed enough: Google reverse image search isn’t very good.

As of this guide’s publication date, the undisputed leader of reverse image search is the Russian site Yandex. After Yandex, the runners-up are Microsoft’s Bing and Google. A fourth service that could also be used in investigations is TinEye, but this site specializes in intellectual property violations and looks for exact duplicates of images.

Yandex

Yandex is by far the best reverse image search engine, with a scary-powerful ability to recognize faces, landscapes, and objects. This Russian site draws heavily upon user-generated content, such as tourist review sites (e.g. FourSquare and TripAdvisor) and social networks (e.g. dating sites), for remarkably accurate results with facial and landscape recognition queries.

Its strengths lie in photographs taken in a European or former-Soviet context. While photographs from North America, Africa, and other places may still return useful results on Yandex, you may find yourself frustrated by scrolling through results mostly from Russia, Ukraine, and eastern Europe rather than the country of your target images.

To use Yandex, go to images.yandex.com, then choose the camera icon on the right.

From there, you can either upload a saved image or type in the URL of one hosted online.

If you get stuck with the Russian user interface, look out for Выберите файл (Choose file), Введите адрес картинки (Enter image address), and Найти (Search). After searching, look out for Похожие картинки (Similar images), and Ещё похожие (More similar).

The facial recognition algorithms used by Yandex are shockingly good. Not only will Yandex look for photographs that look similar to the one that has a face in it, but it will also look for other photographs of the same person (determined through matching facial similarities) with completely different lighting, background colors, and positions. While Google and Bing may just look for other photographs showing a person with similar clothes and general facial features, Yandex will search for those matches, and also other photographs of a facial match. Below, you can see how the three services searched the face of Sergey Dubinsky, a Russian suspect in the downing of MH17. Yandex found numerous photographs of Dubinsky from various sources (only two of the top results had unrelated people), with the result differing from the original image but showing the same person. Google had no luck at all, while Bing had a single result (fifth image, second row) that also showed Dubinsky.

Yandex is, obviously, a Russian service, and there are worries and suspicions of its ties (or potential future ties) to the Kremlin. While we at Bellingcat constantly use Yandex for its search capabilities, you may be a bit more paranoid than us. Use Yandex at your own risk, especially if you are also worried about using VK and other Russian services. If you aren’t particularly paranoid, try searching an un-indexed photograph of yourself or someone you know in Yandex, and see if it can find yourself or your doppelganger online.

Bing

Over the past few years, Bing has caught up to Google in its reverse image search capabilities, but is still limited. Bing’s “Visual Search”, found at images.bing.com, is very easy to use, and offers a few interesting features not found elsewhere.

Within an image search, Bing allows you to crop a photograph (button below the source image) to focus on a specific element in said photograph, as seen below. The results with the cropped image will exclude the extraneous elements, focusing on the user-defined box. However, if the selected portion of the image is small, it is worth it to manually crop the photograph yourself and increase the resolution — low-resolution images (below 200×200) bring back poor results.

Below, a Google Street View image of a man walking a couple of pugs was cropped to focus on just the pooches, leading to Bing to suggest the breed of dog visible in the photograph (the “Looks like” feature), along with visually similar results. These results mostly included pairs of dogs being walked, matching the source image, but did not always only include pugs, as French bulldogs, English bulldogs, mastiffs, and others are mixed in.

Google

By far the most popular reverse image search engine, at images.google.com, Google is fine for most rudimentary reverse image searches. Some of these relatively simple queries include identifying well-known people in photographs, finding the source of images that have been shared quite a bit online, determining the name and creator of a piece of art, and so on. However, if you want to locate images that are not close to an exact copy of the one you are researching, you may be disappointed.

For example, when searching for the face of a man who tried to attack a BBC journalist at a Trump rally, Google can find the source of the cropped image, but cannot find any additional images of him, or even someone who bears a passing resemblance to him.

While Google was not very strong in finding other instances of this man’s face or similar-looking people, it still found the original, un-cropped version of the photograph the screenshot was taken from, showing some utility.

Five Test Cases

For testing out different reverse image search techniques and engines, a handful of images representing different types of investigations are used, including both original photographs (not previously uploaded online) and recycled ones. Due to the fact that these photographs are included in this guide, it is likely that these test cases will not work as intended in the future, as search engines will index these photographs and integrate them into their results. Thus, screenshots of the results as they appeared when this guide was being written are included.

These test photographs include a number of different geographic regions to test the strength of search engines for source material in western Europe, eastern Europe, South America, southeast Asia, and the United States. With each of these photographs, I have also highlighted discrete objects within the image to test out the strengths and weaknesses for each search engine.

Feel free to download these photographs (every image in this guide is hyperlinked directly to a JPEG file) and run them through search engines yourself to test out your skills.

Olisov Palace In Nizhny Novgord, Russia (Original, not previously uploaded online)

Isolated: White SUV in Nizhny Novgorod

Isolated: Trailer in Nizhny Novgorod

Cityscape In Cebu, Philippines (Original, not previously uploaded online)

Isolated: Condominium complex, “The Padgett Place

Isolated: “Waterfront Hotel

Students From Bloomberg 2020 Ad (Screenshot from video)

Isolated: Student

Av. do Café In São Paulo, Brazil (Screenshot from Google Street View)

Isolated: Toca do Açaí

Isolated: Estacionamento (Parking)

Amsterdam Canal (Original, not previously uploaded online)

Isolated: Grey Heron

Isolated: Dutch Flag (also rotated 90 degrees clockwise)

Results

Each of these photographs were chosen in order to demonstrate the capabilities and limitations of the three search engines. While Yandex in particular may seem like it is working digital black magic at times, it is far from infallible and can struggle with some types of searches. For some ways to possibly overcome these limitations, I’ve detailed some creative search strategies at the end of this guide.

Novgorod’s Olisov Palace

Predictably, Yandex had no trouble identifying this Russian building. Along with photographs from a similar angle to our source photograph, Yandex also found images from other perspectives, including 90 degrees counter-clockwise (see the first two images in the third row) from the vantage point of the source image.

Yandex also had no trouble identifying the white SUV in the foreground of the photograph as a Nissan Juke.

Lastly, in the most challenging isolated search for this image, Yandex was unsuccessful in identifying the non-descript grey trailer in front of the building. A number of the results look like the one from the source image, but none are an actual match.

Bing had no success in identifying this structure. Nearly all of its results were from the United States and western Europe, showing houses with white/grey masonry or siding and brown roofs.

Likewise, Bing could not determine that the white SUV was a Nissan Juke, instead focusing on an array of other white SUVs and cars.

Lastly, Bing failed in identifying the grey trailer, focusing more on RVs and larger, grey campers.

Google‘s results for the full photograph are comically bad, looking to the House television show and images with very little visual similarity.

Google successfully identified the white SUV as a Nissan Juke, even noting it in the text field search. As seen with Yandex, feeding the search engine an image from a similar perspective as popular reference materials — a side view of a car that resembles that of most advertisements — will best allow reverse image algorithms to work their magic.

Lastly, Google recognized what the grey trailer was (travel trailer / camper), but its “visually similar images” were far from it.

Scorecard: Yandex 2/3; Bing 0/3; Google 1/3

Cebu

Yandex was technically able to identify the cityscape as that of Cebu in the Philippines, but perhaps only by accident. The fourth result in the first row and the fourth result in the second row are of Cebu, but only the second photograph shows any of the same buildings as in the source image. Many of the results were also from southeast Asia (especially Thailand, which is a popular destination for Russian tourists), noting similar architectural styles, but none are from the same perspective as the source.

Of the two buildings isolated from the search (the Padgett Palace and Waterfront Hotel), Yandex was able to identify the latter, but not the former. The Padgett Palace building is a relatively unremarkable high-rise building filled with condos, while the Waterfront Hotel also has a casino inside, leading to an array of tourist photographs showing its more distinct architecture.

Bing did not have any results that were even in southeast Asia when searching for the Cebu cityscape, showing a severe geographic limitation to its indexed results.

Like Yandex, Bing was unable to identify the building on the left part of the source image.

Bing was unable to find the Waterfront Hotel, both when using Bing’s cropping function (bringing back only low-resolution photographs) and manually cropping and increasing the resolution of the building from the source image. It is worth noting that the results from these two versions of the image, which were identical outside of the resolution, brought back dramatically different results.

As with Yandex, Google brought back a photograph of Cebu in its results, but without a strong resemblance to the source image. While Cebu was not in the thumbnails for the initial results, following through to “Visually similar images” will fetch an image of Cebu’s skyline as the eleventh result (third image in the second row below).

As with Yandex and Bing, Google was unable to identify the high-rise condo building on the left part of the source image. Google also had no success with the Waterfront Hotel image.

Scorecard: Yandex 4/6; Bing 0/6; Google 2/6

Bloomberg 2020 Student

Yandex found the source image from this Bloomberg campaign advertisement — a Getty Images stock photo. Along with this, Yandex also found versions of the photograph with filters applied (second result, first row) and additional photographs from the same stock photo series. Also, for some reason, porn, as seen in the blurred results below.

When isolating just the face of the stock photo model, Yandex brought back a handful of other shots of the same guy (see last image in first row), plus images of the same stock photo set in the classroom (see the fourth image in the first row).

Bing had an interesting search result: it found the exact match of the stock photograph, and then brought back “Similar images” of other men in blue shirts. The “Pages with this” tab of the result provides a handy list of duplicate versions of this same image across the web.

Focusing on just the face of the stock photo model does not bring back any useful results, or provide the source image that it was taken from.

Google recognizes that the image used by the Bloomberg campaign is a stock photo, bringing back an exact result. Google will also provide other stock photos of people in blue shirts in class.

In isolating the student, Google will again return the source of the stock photo, but its visually similar images do not show the stock photo model, rather an array of other men with similar facial hair. We’ll count this as a half-win in finding the original image, but not showing any information on the specific model, as Yandex did.

Scorecard: Yandex 6/8; Bing 1/8; Google 3.5/8

Brazilian Street View

Yandex could not figure out that this image was snapped in Brazil, instead focusing on urban landscapes in Russia.

For Toca do Açaí, for some reason, Yandex mostly brought back porn as results. These images were blurred, and you can click here to see the results. However, despite the blurred smut, two of the results did correctly identify the logo.

For the parking sign [Estacionamento], Yandex did not even come close.

Bing did not know that this street view image was taken in Brazil.

…nor did Bing recognize the parking sign

…or the Toca do Açaí logo.

Despite the fact that the image was directly taken from Google’s Street View, Google reverse image search did not recognize a photograph uploaded onto its own service.

Just as Bing and Yandex, Google could not recognize the Portuguese parking sign.

Lastly, Google did not come close to identifying the Toca do Açaí logo, instead focusing on various types of wooden panels, showing how it focused on the backdrop of the image rather than the logo and words.

Scorecard: Yandex 7/11; Bing 1/11; Google 3.5/11

Amsterdam Canal

Yandex knew exactly where this photograph was taken in Amsterdam, finding other photographs taken in central Amsterdam, and even including ones with various types of birds in the frame.

Yandex correctly identified bird in the foreground of the photograph as a grey heron (серая цапля), also bringing back an array of images of grey herons in a similar position and posture as the source image.

However, Yandex flunked the test of identifying the Dutch flag hanging in the background of the photograph. When rotating the image 90 degrees clockwise to present the flag in its normal pattern, Yandex was able to figure out that it was a flag, but did not return any Dutch flags in its results.

Bing only recognized that this image shows an urban landscape with water, with no results from Amsterdam.

Though Bing struggled with identifying an urban landscape, it correctly identified the bird as a grey heron, including a specialized “Looks like” result going to a page describing the bird.

However, like with Yandex, the Dutch flag was too confusing for Bing, both in its original and rotated forms.

Google noted that there was a reflection in the canal of the image, but went no further than this, focusing on various paved paths in cities and nothing from Amsterdam.

Google was close in the bird identification exercise, but just barely missed it — it is a grey, not great blue, heron.

07 Jan 07:17

The books and translations about Japan to watch out for in 2020 | The Japan Times

The new decade starts in a minor key for the publishing of Japanese literature in translation as Haikasoru — publisher of Hideo Furukawa and Taiyo Fujii among many others — goes on hiatus. A great champion of science fiction, fantasy and horror, the hole it leaves behind will not easily be filled. Let’s hope the hiatus is brief.

Despite this sad news, 2020 promises to be another spectacular year for translations and books about Japan with some familiar names and some newcomers gracing the stage in the 12 months ahead.

Following on from the international success of “Convenience Store Woman,” Granta is bringing Sayaka Murata’s “Earthlings” to English for the first time. Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, it tells the story of two children who believe themselves to be from another planet. When they are separated by their parents, their will to be reunited leads to, in Granta’s words, “spectacular and violent consequences.” This is one that should be on everyone’s wish list.

New Directions Publishing is also striking while Hiroko Oyamada’s iron is hot. October 2019 saw the publication in English of the much-acclaimed “The Factory,” and hot on its heels comes her Akutagawa Prize-winning story “The Hole,” translated by David Boyd. A 30-year-old woman quits her job and moves to the countryside, where she meets some strange people and falls into a hole. It wouldn’t be a year in Japanese literature without a dose of weirdness, and reviews of the Japanese original mention magical realism, esotericism and Kafka, words which tick a lot of the right boxes.

2020 may be the year of Seishi Yokomizo, who has two novels in translation out from Pushkin Vertigo within a few months of each other. “The Honjin Murders” (translated by Louise Heal Kawai) and “The Inugami Curse” (translated by Yumiko Yamazaki) are murder mysteries solved (presumably) by detective Kosuke Kindaichi. Both set in the late 1930s/early 1940s, they promise to be atmospheric, exciting and knotty whodunits. The covers alone are enough to get any fan of the genre salivating.

Another title from Pushkin Press in 2020 is Naoki Matayoshi’s “Spark,” translated by Alison Watts. Aspiring comedian Tokunaga teams up with mentor Kamiya for a hilarious drunken romp around the world of manzai comedy. The original has already been adapted into the hit series “Hibana: Spark” by Netflix Japan.

Moving away from translation, the prolific Suzanne Kamata returns with “Pop Flies, Robo-Pets and Other Disasters” (One Elm Books). It is aimed at younger readers and explores the experiences of a returnee from America to a Japanese junior high school through the highs and lows of a baseball team.

Rebecca Otowa’s “The Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper and Other Short Stories From Japan” (Tuttle Publishing) promises tales of Japanese experiences from both Japanese and foreign perspectives, and the enticing title suggests these don’t dwell too much on the everyday.

Speaking of short stories, Red Circle Authors continues its series of minis with “The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro” by Kanji Hanawa (translated by Meredith McKinney) and “The Refugees’ Daughter” by Takuji Ichikawa (translated by Emily Balistrieri). Red Circle has quickly filled a niche few recognized existed with these one-story shorts, and hopefully the series will continue its run through this year and on.

When Can We Go Back to America?” by Susan H. Kamei and Barry Denenberg (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) delves into the internment of Japanese in the U.S. during World War II. The press release describes it as a “novel that narrates the oral history of Japanese incarceration during the war, from the perspective of the young people affected.” The parallels between internment and the contemporary detention of immigrants in the U.S. hardly need to be spelled out, making this a timely and relevant publication.

Also of the moment is Michael Booth’s “Three Tigers, One Mountain” (Jonathan Cape). Based on the Chinese proverb that two tigers cannot share one mountain, Booth explores the history of Chinese-Japanese-Korean relations through anthropology, history, politics and travel, visiting all three countries before ending his journey in Taiwan.

Winding the geopolitical clock back a century or so, the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) marked the first time a modern Asian nation had defeated a European one, and ushered in an era of conflict. It also marked the end of the golden age of combat correspondence, according to Michael S. Sweeney and Natascha Toft Roelsgaard. Their new book, “Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War,” (Lexington Books) argues that the template for relations between the press and the military were laid down in this war and are still adhered to today.

And finally, “The Only Gaijin in the Village: A Year Living in Rural Japan” (Polygon) by, well, me, is out in March. A memoir about living in rural Japan, it is “intelligent, warm-hearted, down-to-earth and often very funny” according to poet and novelist Alan Spence. Do, please, check that out as well.

As always, this is only a small sample of the translations and books about Japan hitting the shelves in 2020. Why not tell us what you’re looking forward to on our social media streams?

02 Jan 11:14

Kassetthouse 2019

by rasmus

Traditionen måste fortsätta, efter listorna med tips på kassettsläpp som här på bloggen har fått avsluta åren 2016, 2017 och 2018. Som vanligt rymmer listan mer än bara housemusik, men det finns ändå en avgränsning till det mer eller mindre dansanta. Men bara kassetter som jag själv rent fysiskt har lyckats lägga vantarna på, vilket bidrar till en europeisk slagsida då beställning av kassetter från världen utanför EU numera medför risken för en momssmäll. Men jag tror ändå att listan antyder något om hur global scenen är. Tänkte återkomma om några dagar med en lista på ytterligare kassettutgåvor från andra musikspektra, som jag gärna vill uppmärksamma.

Tre-noll-treenigheten by Bottenvikens Silverkyrka

Bottenvikens Silverkyrka – Tre​-​noll​-​treenigheten

Lamour | Discogs | Bandcamp
Börjar med att tipsa om denna generösa samling av acid-techno på väckelsetema från Umeåduon som slog igenom för något år sedan med en acidremix på Carolas kommunistiska hymn “Säg mig var du står” och som i år nominerades till nåt fint pris av P3.

VA – The Blaq Bunch Vol.3 (BLAQTAPES007) by Blaq Numbers

The Blaq Bunch Vol​.​3

Blaq Numbers | Bandcamp
Tack vare den här samlingskassetten stiftade jag bekantskap med bolaget Blaq Numbers som jag verkligen gillar. Kanske årets trevligaste housekassett som hunnit rulla många varv. Med bland andra DJ Psychiatre som dyker upp lite här och var i dessa sammanhang.

2XM – Astral Lakes EP incl. Remixes from Explorer Of The Humankind & DJ Psychiatre (BLAQTAPES006) by Blaq Numbers

2XM – Astral Lakes

Blaq Numbers | Discogs | Bandcamp
Ännu en kassett från Blaq Numbers, med brittiska duon 2XM och remixer av bland andra DJ Psychiatre. Lite kortare speltid än föregående, men stabilt bra kassetthouse.

The Finspång Sound – Exodus (95-97) by Tobohäxan

The Finspång Sound: Exodus (95​-​97)

Kronofonika
Fortsättningen på en kassett som tipsades om i fjol och bygger vidare på samma ursprungsmyt (upphittade inspelningar från en mycket lokal bruksortsscen på 1990-talet). Är även musikaliskt ett återbesök i det senare 1990-talets post-acid ambient.

IS by ISSHU

ISSHU – IS

Seagrave | Discogs | Bandcamp
ISSHU fortsätter att representera den typiskt dekonstruktiva inriktningen i musiken från brittiska Seagrave (som kombinerar kassettmusik med graffiti). Även här råder ganska starka nittiotalsvibbar.

Binary Dreams Collapsed by Charles Taciturn

Charles Taciturn – Binary Dreams Collapsed

Xenonyms | Bandcamp
Ännu mer a melankolisk dansmusik. Vet inte varifrån den kommer, bara att den syftar till att fånga känslan av att befinna sig mellan två platser. Rekommenderas till alla som gillar Burial även om det inte låter särskilt likt.

Spellbound! by DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ

DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ – Spellbound!

Bandcamp
Sabrina är tillbaka med sin euforiska och lätt infantila musik, en sorts lo-fi house som ständigt byter skepnad, blir till funkpop och rentav collegerock. Måste erkänna att jag fortfarande inte kan stå emot det. Medan jag skriver detta upptäckter jag att hon nu i december har hunnit släppa ännu en kassett som jag genast klickar hem.

LI$015 by Isabella

Isabella – LI​$​015

low income $quad | Discogs | Bandcamp
Energisk, kantig och obekväm blandning av “rave stabs, chopped up vocals, gabber kicks and angelic choirs”. Med andra ord så kallad “deconstructed club”. Isabella Koen har bland annat spelat på Norberg, Herrensauna och Room4Resistance, gett ut en split med Bergsonist på Börft, och så vidare, men hennes senaste kassett är släppt på ett sympatiskt kassettbolag från Kroatien.

Careful by BOY HARSHER

Boy Harsher – Careful

Discogs | Bandcamp
Sorgsen dansmusik som tydligt följer i spåren av coldwave och gotisk syntpop. Utgiven på eget bolag och har under året även remixats av företrädare för en kyligare techno, som Silent Servant, Minimal Violence och Marcel Dettman, så sångerskans släpiga stämma ekar en del i mytomspunna kraftverkshallar och dylika ställen. Såvitt jag kunnat märka har Boy Harsher även blivit ganska uppmärksammade av popjournalister.

STI Vol.2 by DJ SKR

DJ SKR – STI Vol​.​2

Eclipse Tribez | Discogs | Bandcamp
Ett redigt ravetape, tänkt som en hyllning till klassiska (brittiska) hardcore/jungle-scenen. Ingenting unikt och syftet är knappast heller att vara det, utan snarare ett visitkort från klubbarrangörer som vill visa omvärlden hur det kan låta på deras dansgolv i Bryssel.

Rave Tuga Vol. IV by Unknown

Rave Tuga Vol. IV

Rave Tuga | Bandcamp
Ravetape från Lissabon med en hel del bra acid/techno som får en att ana någonting om hur stadens ravescen kan låta i dag.

Lost Armor — Счастливые Дни by Raw Russian

Lost Armor — Счастливые Дни

Raw Russian | Discogs | Bandcamp
Raw Russian (som drivs av Nikita Villeneuve i Moskva) har under året varit väldigt aktiva i sin utgivning, som spänt över ett brett spektra mellan ambient och techno, via breakbeats och smutsiga houseremixer av gammal rysk pop, allting omsorgsfullt inlindat i myten om det stora ryska vemodet.

Тихий Куст – Растения / Razteniya by Raw Russian

Тихий Куст – Растения

Raw Russian | | Bandcamp
Enligt uppgift spelades detta – som i huvudsak utgörs av någon sorts atmosfärisk jungle – in redan 1998, av en viss Sergej Terentjev som kanske (men troligen inte) är identisk med den i Ryssland hyfsat kände hårdrocksmusikern Sergej Vladimirovitj Terentjev.

Modern Life by amnfx

Åmnfx – Modern Life

Discogs | Bandcamp
Vasilij Skobejev är en producent från Moskva som jag upptäckte genom hans kassett på 100 % Silk som tipsades om här för tre år sedan och som lät klart mjukare än den här kassetten som är mer åt det kärva technohållet. Det känns som att Åmnfx under 2020 kommer att göra mer väsen av sig i övriga Europa.

Potboiler No. 3: Cailín – In My Soul by Cailín

Cailín ‎– In My Soul

Wheretimegoes | Discogs | Bandcamp
Känslomättat halvmelodisk techno från södra Irland. Cailín kommer sannolikt, precis som Åmnfx, att göra mer väsen av sig i Europa framöver.

alpine funk classics vol.2 by 𝓼𝓱𝓸𝓰𝓪𝓷𝓪𝓲

Alpine Funk Classics vol​.​2

Shoganai | Bandcamp
Samlingskassett från den franska alpstaden Grenoble, med tio spår av olika producenter därifrån. Köpte den mest på grund av titeln och gillar att lyssna på det även om jag inte får så bra grepp om stilriktningen, fast det är snarare acid och techno än renodlad funk, om man säger så.

Rough Cuts Vol.1 by Too Rough 4 Radio

Rough Cuts Vol​.​1

Too Rough 4 Radio | Discogs | Bandcamp
Samlingskassett från TR4R som likt Blaq Numbers är en ny upptäckt jag har gjort på kassettscenen i år och som kan ha att göra med att DJ Psychiatre dyker upp även här. En lagom spretig mix där house bryts i breakbeats och acidutflykter.

27 Dec 13:04

Guide To Using Reverse Image Search For Investigations

Reverse image search is one of the most well-known and easiest digital investigative techniques, with two-click functionality of choosing “Search Google for image” in many web browsers. This method has also seen widespread use in popular culture, perhaps most notably in the MTV show Catfish, which exposes people in online relationships who use stolen photographs on their social media.

However, if you only use Google for reverse image searching, you will be disappointed more often than not. Limiting your search process to uploading a photograph in its original form to just images.google.com may give you useful results for the most obviously stolen or popular images, but for most any sophisticated research project, you need additional sites at your disposal — along with a lot of creativity.

This guide will walk through detailed strategies to use reverse image search in digital investigations, with an eye towards identifying people and locations, along with determining an image’s progeny. After detailing the core differences between the search engines, Yandex, Bing, and Google are tested on five test images showing different objects and from various regions of the world.

Beyond Google

The first and most important piece of advice on this topic cannot be stressed enough: Google reverse image search isn’t very good.

As of this guide’s publication date, the undisputed leader of reverse image search is the Russian site Yandex. After Yandex, the runners-up are Microsoft’s Bing and Google. A fourth service that could also be used in investigations is TinEye, but this site specializes in intellectual property violations and looks for exact duplicates of images.

Yandex

Yandex is by far the best reverse image search engine, with a scary-powerful ability to recognize faces, landscapes, and objects. This Russian site draws heavily upon user-generated content, such as tourist review sites (e.g. FourSquare and TripAdvisor) and social networks (e.g. dating sites), for remarkably accurate results with facial and landscape recognition queries.

Its strengths lie in photographs taken in a European or former-Soviet context. While photographs from North America, Africa, and other places may still return useful results on Yandex, you may find yourself frustrated by scrolling through results mostly from Russia, Ukraine, and eastern Europe rather than the country of your target images.

To use Yandex, go to images.yandex.com, then choose the camera icon on the right.

From there, you can either upload a saved image or type in the URL of one hosted online.

If you get stuck with the Russian user interface, look out for Выберите файл (Choose file), Введите адрес картинки (Enter image address), and Найти (Search). After searching, look out for Похожие картинки (Similar images), and Ещё похожие (More similar).

The facial recognition algorithms used by Yandex are shockingly good. Not only will Yandex look for photographs that look similar to the one that has a face in it, but it will also look for other photographs of the same person (determined through matching facial similarities) with completely different lighting, background colors, and positions. While Google and Bing may just look for other photographs showing a person with similar clothes and general facial features, Yandex will search for those matches, and also other photographs of a facial match. Below, you can see how the three services searched the face of Sergey Dubinsky, a Russian suspect in the downing of MH17. Yandex found numerous photographs of Dubinsky from various sources (only two of the top results had unrelated people), with the result differing from the original image but showing the same person. Google had no luck at all, while Bing had a single result (fifth image, second row) that also showed Dubinsky.

Yandex is, obviously, a Russian service, and there are worries and suspicions of its ties (or potential future ties) to the Kremlin. While we at Bellingcat constantly use Yandex for its search capabilities, you may be a bit more paranoid than us. Use Yandex at your own risk, especially if you are also worried about using VK and other Russian services. If you aren’t particularly paranoid, try searching an un-indexed photograph of yourself or someone you know in Yandex, and see if it can find yourself or your doppelganger online.

Bing

Over the past few years, Bing has caught up to Google in its reverse image search capabilities, but is still limited. Bing’s “Visual Search”, found at images.bing.com, is very easy to use, and offers a few interesting features not found elsewhere.

Within an image search, Bing allows you to crop a photograph (button below the source image) to focus on a specific element in said photograph, as seen below. The results with the cropped image will exclude the extraneous elements, focusing on the user-defined box. However, if the selected portion of the image is small, it is worth it to manually crop the photograph yourself and increase the resolution — low-resolution images (below 200×200) bring back poor results.

Below, a Google Street View image of a man walking a couple of pugs was cropped to focus on just the pooches, leading to Bing to suggest the breed of dog visible in the photograph (the “Looks like” feature), along with visually similar results. These results mostly included pairs of dogs being walked, matching the source image, but did not always only include pugs, as French bulldogs, English bulldogs, mastiffs, and others are mixed in.

Google

By far the most popular reverse image search engine, at images.google.com, Google is fine for most rudimentary reverse image searches. Some of these relatively simple queries include identifying well-known people in photographs, finding the source of images that have been shared quite a bit online, determining the name and creator of a piece of art, and so on. However, if you want to locate images that are not close to an exact copy of the one you are researching, you may be disappointed.

For example, when searching for the face of a man who tried to attack a BBC journalist at a Trump rally, Google can find the source of the cropped image, but cannot find any additional images of him, or even someone who bears a passing resemblance to him.

While Google was not very strong in finding other instances of this man’s face or similar-looking people, it still found the original, un-cropped version of the photograph the screenshot was taken from, showing some utility.

Five Test Cases

For testing out different reverse image search techniques and engines, a handful of images representing different types of investigations are used, including both original photographs (not previously uploaded online) and recycled ones. Due to the fact that these photographs are included in this guide, it is likely that these test cases will not work as intended in the future, as search engines will index these photographs and integrate them into their results. Thus, screenshots of the results as they appeared when this guide was being written are included.

These test photographs include a number of different geographic regions to test the strength of search engines for source material in western Europe, eastern Europe, South America, southeast Asia, and the United States. With each of these photographs, I have also highlighted discrete objects within the image to test out the strengths and weaknesses for each search engine.

Feel free to download these photographs (every image in this guide is hyperlinked directly to a JPEG file) and run them through search engines yourself to test out your skills.

Olisov Palace In Nizhny Novgord, Russia (Original, not previously uploaded online)

Isolated: White SUV in Nizhny Novgorod

Isolated: Trailer in Nizhny Novgorod

Cityscape In Cebu, Philippines (Original, not previously uploaded online)

Isolated: Condominium complex, “The Padgett Place

Isolated: “Waterfront Hotel

Students From Bloomberg 2020 Ad (Screenshot from video)

Isolated: Student

Av. do Café In São Paulo, Brazil (Screenshot from Google Street View)

Isolated: Toca do Açaí

Isolated: Estacionamento (Parking)

Amsterdam Canal (Original, not previously uploaded online)

Isolated: Grey Heron

Isolated: Dutch Flag (also rotated 90 degrees clockwise)

Results

Each of these photographs were chosen in order to demonstrate the capabilities and limitations of the three search engines. While Yandex in particular may seem like it is working digital black magic at times, it is far from infallible and can struggle with some types of searches. For some ways to possibly overcome these limitations, I’ve detailed some creative search strategies at the end of this guide.

Novgorod’s Olisov Palace

Predictably, Yandex had no trouble identifying this Russian building. Along with photographs from a similar angle to our source photograph, Yandex also found images from other perspectives, including 90 degrees counter-clockwise (see the first two images in the third row) from the vantage point of the source image.

Yandex also had no trouble identifying the white SUV in the foreground of the photograph as a Nissan Juke.

Lastly, in the most challenging isolated search for this image, Yandex was unsuccessful in identifying the non-descript grey trailer in front of the building. A number of the results look like the one from the source image, but none are an actual match.

Bing had no success in identifying this structure. Nearly all of its results were from the United States and western Europe, showing houses with white/grey masonry or siding and brown roofs.

Likewise, Bing could not determine that the white SUV was a Nissan Juke, instead focusing on an array of other white SUVs and cars.

Lastly, Bing failed in identifying the grey trailer, focusing more on RVs and larger, grey campers.

Google‘s results for the full photograph are comically bad, looking to the House television show and images with very little visual similarity.

Google successfully identified the white SUV as a Nissan Juke, even noting it in the text field search. As seen with Yandex, feeding the search engine an image from a similar perspective as popular reference materials — a side view of a car that resembles that of most advertisements — will best allow reverse image algorithms to work their magic.

Lastly, Google recognized what the grey trailer was (travel trailer / camper), but its “visually similar images” were far from it.

Scorecard: Yandex 2/3; Bing 0/3; Google 1/3

Cebu

Yandex was technically able to identify the cityscape as that of Cebu in the Philippines, but perhaps only by accident. The fourth result in the first row and the fourth result in the second row are of Cebu, but only the second photograph shows any of the same buildings as in the source image. Many of the results were also from southeast Asia (especially Thailand, which is a popular destination for Russian tourists), noting similar architectural styles, but none are from the same perspective as the source.

Of the two buildings isolated from the search (the Padgett Palace and Waterfront Hotel), Yandex was able to identify the latter, but not the former. The Padgett Palace building is a relatively unremarkable high-rise building filled with condos, while the Waterfront Hotel also has a casino inside, leading to an array of tourist photographs showing its more distinct architecture.

Bing did not have any results that were even in southeast Asia when searching for the Cebu cityscape, showing a severe geographic limitation to its indexed results.

Like Yandex, Bing was unable to identify the building on the left part of the source image.

Bing was unable to find the Waterfront Hotel, both when using Bing’s cropping function (bringing back only low-resolution photographs) and manually cropping and increasing the resolution of the building from the source image. It is worth noting that the results from these two versions of the image, which were identical outside of the resolution, brought back dramatically different results.

As with Yandex, Google brought back a photograph of Cebu in its results, but without a strong resemblance to the source image. While Cebu was not in the thumbnails for the initial results, following through to “Visually similar images” will fetch an image of Cebu’s skyline as the eleventh result (third image in the second row below).

As with Yandex and Bing, Google was unable to identify the high-rise condo building on the left part of the source image. Google also had no success with the Waterfront Hotel image.

Scorecard: Yandex 4/6; Bing 0/6; Google 2/6

Bloomberg 2020 Student

Yandex found the source image from this Bloomberg campaign advertisement — a Getty Images stock photo. Along with this, Yandex also found versions of the photograph with filters applied (second result, first row) and additional photographs from the same stock photo series. Also, for some reason, porn, as seen in the blurred results below.

When isolating just the face of the stock photo model, Yandex brought back a handful of other shots of the same guy (see last image in first row), plus images of the same stock photo set in the classroom (see the fourth image in the first row).

Bing had an interesting search result: it found the exact match of the stock photograph, and then brought back “Similar images” of other men in blue shirts. The “Pages with this” tab of the result provides a handy list of duplicate versions of this same image across the web.

Focusing on just the face of the stock photo model does not bring back any useful results, or provide the source image that it was taken from.

Google recognizes that the image used by the Bloomberg campaign is a stock photo, bringing back an exact result. Google will also provide other stock photos of people in blue shirts in class.

In isolating the student, Google will again return the source of the stock photo, but its visually similar images do not show the stock photo model, rather an array of other men with similar facial hair. We’ll count this as a half-win in finding the original image, but not showing any information on the specific model, as Yandex did.

Scorecard: Yandex 6/8; Bing 1/8; Google 3.5/8

Brazilian Street View

Yandex could not figure out that this image was snapped in Brazil, instead focusing on urban landscapes in Russia.

For Toca do Açaí, for some reason, Yandex mostly brought back porn as results. These images were blurred, and you can click here to see the results. However, despite the blurred smut, two of the results did correctly identify the logo.

For the parking sign [Estacionamento], Yandex did not even come close.

Bing did not know that this street view image was taken in Brazil.

…nor did Bing recognize the parking sign

…or the Toca do Açaí logo.

Despite the fact that the image was directly taken from Google’s Street View, Google reverse image search did not recognize a photograph uploaded onto its own service.

Just as Bing and Yandex, Google could not recognize the Portuguese parking sign.

Lastly, Google did not come close to identifying the Toca do Açaí logo, instead focusing on various types of wooden panels, showing how it focused on the backdrop of the image rather than the logo and words.

Scorecard: Yandex 7/11; Bing 1/11; Google 3.5/11

Amsterdam Canal

Yandex knew exactly where this photograph was taken in Amsterdam, finding other photographs taken in central Amsterdam, and even including ones with various types of birds in the frame.

Yandex correctly identified bird in the foreground of the photograph as a grey heron (серая цапля), also bringing back an array of images of grey herons in a similar position and posture as the source image.

However, Yandex flunked the test of identifying the Dutch flag hanging in the background of the photograph. When rotating the image 90 degrees clockwise to present the flag in its normal pattern, Yandex was able to figure out that it was a flag, but did not return any Dutch flags in its results.

Bing only recognized that this image shows an urban landscape with water, with no results from Amsterdam.

Though Bing struggled with identifying an urban landscape, it correctly identified the bird as a grey heron, including a specialized “Looks like” result going to a page describing the bird.

However, like with Yandex, the Dutch flag was too confusing for Bing, both in its original and rotated forms.

Google noted that there was a reflection in the canal of the image, but went no further than this, focusing on various paved paths in cities and nothing from Amsterdam.

Google was close in the bird identification exercise, but just barely missed it — it is a grey, not great blue, heron.

19 Dec 11:15

Hur jag skriver

by Hexmaster
I färd med ännu en bok (återkommer om detaljerna) så kanske det kan intressera hur jag lägger upp skrivarbetet generellt. Skönlitteratur har jag aldrig ägnat mig åt och har inte en aning om hur de författarna gör – mer än att det finns otaliga metoder. När det gäller facklitteratur finns det naturligtvis också otaliga metoder för att fylla arken med nedslag. Här är den som jag använder.

Det mesta jag skrivit kan ses som artiklar, om inte annat så kan jag se dem som sådana: Texter på några få tusen nedslag upp till kanske 30 000, som handlar om ett specifikt ämne. Det var det format som jag först blev publicerad i, och som jag sedan vant mig vid. Om det ska vara betydligt längre så delar jag upp ämnet i bitar lagoma för artikel-långa texter.

Sedan vidtar insamlande av stoff. Jag läser in mig, analogt som digitalt, tittar på filmer, frågar folk, besöker platser ... Jag upprättar också ett kladd-dokument. När jag hittar något intressant, drar någon slutsats, kommer på något jag vill undersöka närmare, eller på annat sätt vill lägga något på minnet, så skriver jag upp det i kladden. Där skriver jag också sammanfattningar, formulerar frågeställningar, etc. Så småningom börjar jag att behandla kladden mer och mer som ett utkast, där påbörjade stycken med skriven text läggs in bland citat och lösryckta snuttar.

Förr eller senare kommer en struktur att börja kristalliseras i kladden – den har åtminstone gjort det hittills ... Jag kan komma underfund med vilka frågor jag vill ta upp, i vilken ordning de ska komma, hur inledning och avslutning ska se ut, illustrationer som ska vara med, och så vidare.

När jag börjar kunna se den färdiga texten framför mig så tar jag nästa steg: Jag börjar från början. Ett nytt rent dokument upprättas där artikeln skrivs ned. Kladden utgör nu ett skafferi från vilket jag kan hämta utvalt material, textsnuttar i olika längder, påbörjade eller kanske färdigslipade formuleringar. Dessa redigeras ihop och kompletteras med nya texter.

Det finns en god regel som säger att skrivande och redigerande är helt olika sysslor, två olika sätt att tänka, och som därför ska separeras så långt det är möjligt. Det är en god regel som jag ibland följer.

En ännu bättre regel säger att när skribenten anser sig vara "färdig" med en text, så ska den läggas undan en tid; allra minst några dagar, gärna några veckor. När man sedan återkommer till texten så kommer man att se bemängder med fel och brister. Felen och bristerna har naturligtvis funnits där länge men man har vant sig vid dem; efter ett tillräckligt långt uppehåll ser man texten med nya ögon, och då blir de desto tydligare. En annan metod för att komma runt denna irriterande "hemmablindhet" är att då och då byta typsnitt och grad; när ord- och textbilder blir annorlunda så kan dittills osynliga fel och brister plötsligt bli nog så synliga. Ännu en metod för att se texten på ett nytt sätt, och som dessutom har andra fördelar, är att skriva ut texten och gå igenom den manuellt. Gäller det lite viktigare texter är det steget obligatoriskt.

16 Dec 15:30

Both sides

On Saturday night, Donald Trump complained about the next morning’s TV schedule. “Hard to believe that @FoxNews will be interviewing sleazebag & totally discredited former FBI Director James Comey, & also corrupt politician Adam ‘Shifty’ Schiff,” Trump tweeted; the network, he added, is trying “sooo hard to be politically correct” that it risks going the same way as “Commiecast MSNBC & Fake News CNN.” Yesterday, Chris Wallace—host of the offending show, Fox News Sunday—raised the viewer feedback with Pam Bondi, a Trump adviser. “Does the president understand that it’s the duty of a free and fair press to cover both sides of the story?” Wallace asked. Bondi said she, personally, was glad Wallace was grilling Comey and Schiff, and pivoted to attacking them. “Thank you very much for the promo,” Wallace joked. “Please come back and we’ll have some more tough questions for you.”

The exchange spoke to Wallace’s reputation as a redoubt of integrity (and sanity) at Fox. But not everyone watching will have agreed with his assessment that it’s the media’s duty to “cover both sides of the story.” In the Trump era, “both sides” (or “bothsidesism”) has become shorthand for a journalistic philosophy that many media critics consider to be broken, especially in its Democrat v. Republican iteration; its rules, critics say, make things that aren’t the same seem the same, and allow bad actors to launder disinformation. Yesterday, Dan Froomkin, editor of Press Watch, put it well, with specific reference to the New York Times: “If you’d asked NYT editors five years ago whether people who deny basic facts, traffic in conspiracy theories, demonize immigrants, and otherwise fight against a pluralistic society should be given equal (or more than equal) time in their news columns, they would have said no.”

ICYMI: Why a lot of critics are wrong about Rachel Maddow

As impeachment has progressed, attacks on the “both sides” approach—and the Times, in particular—have intensified. Over the weekend, critics trained their ire on an article in the paper, headlined “The Breach Widens as Congress Nears a Partisan Impeachment,” about a debate in the Judiciary Committee. Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight, noted that the actual words “both sides” appeared four times in the piece. (One of these was in a quotation.) Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, listed 12 more snippets from the article as evidence of the Times’s inability to handle what he calls “asymmetrical polarization.” They included “the different impeachment realities that the two parties are living in,” “both sides engaged in a kind of mutually assured destruction,” and “the two parties could not even agree on a basic set of facts in front of them.”

Rosen is right that this sort of language is inadequate: Democrats, for the most part, are engaging with the factual record; Republicans, for the most part, are not. These positions are manifestly not equivalent. Treating them as such does not serve any useful concept of fairness; instead, it rebounds clearly to the advantage of the one side (Republicans) for whom nonsense being taken seriously is a victory in itself. The Times is far from the only culprit. The structure of some TV news shows, in particular, has bothsidesism hardwired into it: a Democrat and a Republican are given equal time to make their unequal impeachment cases, and both face hard questions, to contrive a sense of balance. The questions lobbed at Democrats are often fair, but often pale into triviality when a Republican follows them on and starts sowing conspiracy theories.

Some coverage, it seems, can’t even do bothsidesism properly. Yesterday, Meet the Press courted online criticism of its own, after it aired clips from a roundtable discussion on impeachment with six voters in Kent County, Michigan, a competitive area of a competitive state. Every one of the voters was a Republican; they all appeared to be white. Host Chuck Todd disclosed their partisan affiliation, but not before he’d introduced them as “voters beyond the Beltway.” The soundbites they gave were entirely predictable: “Have you recorded a football game but found out the final score before you watched it, and you just don’t even care?”; “I think a lot of people see it more as an infomercial, politically”; “Both sides…” Nor were they fully representative of public opinion. Jamil Smith, of Rolling Stone, noted on Twitter that “Nonwhite, liberal voters who also live outside of DC are hardly ever on these panels.” Marcy Wheeler, a national-security blogger who lives in the area Meet the Press visited, said the roundtable didn’t even reflect white opinion in Kent County. (Wheeler says she visited the brewery where the segment was filmed and also interviewed six people there, at random. All six supported impeachment.)

When it comes to much impeachment coverage, bothsidesism isn’t the beginning and end of the problem, but part of our broader reflex to frame contentious political stories around the concept of partisanship. In parts of the press, a set of party-oriented impeachment narratives has taken hold that contains some truth, but also rests on a selective interpretation of available evidence. Entrenched partisanship—in Congress and the country—is real, and newsworthy, as is the role that our fragmented information ecosystem has played in stoking and reinforcing division. And yet it does not follow, as some journalists and pundits seem to have surmised, that impeachment has been a waste of time. At the beginning of his show yesterday, Todd said the “national response” to impeachment has been “whatever.” And yet, as I wrote earlier this month, support for impeaching Trump, while recently static, is historically high. (A Fox News poll out yesterday reinforced that finding.) Six Republicans in Michigan are not the country.

The media’s job, done properly, is multidirectional: it holds power to account, and communicates matters of public interest to news consumers. On impeachment, too much coverage seems to have got stuck in a feedback loop: we’re telling the public that politicians aren’t budging from their partisan siloes, and vice versa, with the facts of what Trump actually did getting lost somewhere in the cycle. The cult of “both sides” is integral to this dynamic, and it’s serving the impeachment story poorly. Now, more than ever, our top duty should be to fight for the truth.

Below, more on impeachment:


Other notable stories:

  • On Friday, the seven candidates who qualified for this week’s Democratic presidential primary debate threatened to skip it—workers at Loyola Marymount University in LA, which is hosting the debate, are locked in a labor dispute, and the candidates vowed not to cross any picket line. The seven candidates all also signed a letter—circulated by the campaign of Cory Booker, who did not qualify for the debate—asking the Democratic National Committee to loosen its rules for qualification; Booker says the existing thresholds favor billionaires, and make the debate stage less diverse. (Julián Castro also signed the letter.) But Tom Perez, the DNC chair, says the rules won’t change just yet.
  • In other news about presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders endorsed Cenk Uygur, of left-wing news platform The Young Turks, for a US House seat in California, then retracted his endorsement following blowback about Uygur’s past comments on women and minorities. (Uygur said he will no longer be accepting any endorsements.) And sources at CityLab told Mother Jones that Bloomberg Media, which is owned by Michael Bloomberg, will only take seven of CityLab’s 16 employees when it buys the site from The Atlantic later this month; the rest will be laid off. Last month, Bloomberg News barred its reporters from investigating Bloomberg or any of his Democratic presidential rivals for the duration of his campaign. It’s unclear if the same rules will apply to CityLab.
  • Powerful people often face uncomfortable questions at the Doha Forum in Qatar—but when Ivanka Trump appeared, she was interviewed by Morgan Ortagus, a former Fox News contributor who currently works as a spokesperson for Trump’s father’s government. According to Otillia Steadman, of BuzzFeed, Ortagus “pitched Trump a series of softball questions” about her women’s economic empowerment initiative.
  • The Wall Street Journal’s Rachael Levy reports on Status Labs, a “reputation management” firm that helps high-profile people bury negative news stories, including by planting positive stories on websites masquerading as independent news outlets. Clients have included the financier Jacob Gottlieb and Betsy DeVos, the education secretary.
  • CJR’s Amanda Darrach spoke with Dan Moldea, an investigative journalist who says The Irishman—Martin Scorsese’s new movie theorizing on the death of union boss Jimmy Hoffa—is “terrific cinema, but terrible history.” Moldea has conducted decades of research on Hoffa’s death. “I am Ahab and the Hoffa case is my white whale,” he says.
  • Controversy continues to swirl around Richard Jewell—Clint Eastwood’s new movie about a man wrongly accused of bombing the 1996 Olympics—in which Kathy Scruggs, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, is shown trading sex for information. The attorney who helped Jewell sue the AJC slammed the plot point, and Olivia Wilde, who plays Scruggs, weighed in, too. (In any case, the film has flopped at the box office.)
  • Police in Savannah, Georgia, arrested Thomas Callaway, who slapped the bottom of Alex Bozarjian, a reporter with WSAV-TV, while she was covering a run live on air last week. Callaway gave a televised apology—but said he was only trying to pat Bozarjian on the back. Bozarjian said Callaway “violated, objectified, and embarrassed” her.
  • For CJR, Nicholas Diakopoulos writes that as newsrooms increasingly use their own algorithms to curate stories, they have a chance to wrest control of news distribution from big tech companies. Outlets’ own curation algorithms, Diakopoulos writes, can build on editorial values such as diversity, transparency, accuracy, and independence.
  • And Emily Atkin, author of the climate newsletter HEATED, is launching an Instagram page, @FossilFuelAds, to chart the proliferation of fossil fuel advertisements in the news media, and is asking readers to help her keep track.

RECENTLY: The tragic story behind a Harper’s article shows the dirty truth about fact-checking

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

a Thursday, Dec 12th, 2019

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