We once again catch up with the snoops, this time bringing you an update on the CIA/Senate spy drama, where Edward Snowden will likely be spending the next three years, and why using Tor may do more harm than good. Moving to the less dramatic world of graphics, Caroline Green joins us to take a look at Macphun’s new Tonality, a tool aimed at helping photographers improve black-and-white photos. And although we didn’t plan it this way, we have a pair of articles on the intersection of physical books and ebooks. First, bibliophile Michael Cohen ponders the BitLit service, which lets you purchase electronic versions of your print books for a nominal charge. Then Glenn Fleishman wades into the increasingly bizarre battle between Amazon and publisher Hachette in an attempt to explain what’s actually going on. In our own book news, Charles Edge explains what you need to know to run a Web server in this week’s installment of “Take Control of OS X Server.” Finally, in FunBITS, Josh Centers looks at NPR One, an iPhone app that brings the Pandora experience to National Public Radio. Notable software releases this week include GraphicConverter 9.3, Mactracker 7.3.3, Airfoil 4.8.8, iTunes 11.3.1, Carbon Copy Cloner 3.5.6, Hider 2.1, and DEVONthink/DEVONnote 2.7.7.
We reported back in “Keeping Up with the Snoops 4: When the Going Gets Weird…,” (13 March 2014) that the United States Senate had accused the CIA of spying on Senate staffers, something that CIA Director John Brennan denied at the time, saying it was “beyond the scope of reason.”
The scope of reason is apparently a bit broader than imagined, because Brennan has recently admitted to, and apologized for, the CIA illegally searching Senate computers.
So what happens now? Probably nothing of any serious consequence. The Justice Department has said it will not bring charges, and despite senators’ calls for the CIA director’s resignation, President Obama has stated that he has “full confidence” in Brennan, who has created an accountability board to investigate the situation. Oh, and “We tortured some folks,” Obama added.
Torture, or rather the CIA’s use of it in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, is the root of the scuffle. The Senate Intelligence Committee spent years, and millions of tax dollars, on a report investigating the CIA’s use of torture, which remains classified. The Obama administration, which bears responsibility for declassifying the report, has been accused of dragging its feet, presumably to save face.
Just as it was looking like the report was finally to be released to the public, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein sent it back due to excessive redactions that “eliminate or obscure key facts that support the report’s findings and conclusions”.
While the report remains, and may forever remain, classified, the Los Angeles Times said, “Those who have read the report say it concludes that the agency used brutal and sometimes unauthorized interrogation techniques, misled policymakers and the public, and sought to undermine congressional oversight. It also reportedly rejects the idea that waterboarding and other ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (a euphemism for torture) produced information vital to preventing terrorist attacks.”
While the Senate and the CIA continue to bicker, the lot of whistleblower Edward Snowden, himself locked behind the Iron Curtain, has grown a shade brighter. After fears that his temporary asylum in Russia might expire, he was granted a three-year residence permit, with permission to travel abroad for up to three months at a time. Perhaps Snowden is feeling a bit freer to travel now, given his recent outing to the theater, his first public appearance in Russia.
But while Snowden’s eventual fate remains up in the air, one thing is certain: the United States security apparatus is no longer capable of operating in the shadows. The government has determined that there is a new leaker releasing inside information to the press.
The post-Snowden leak that prompted the government’s announcement was The Intercept’s story on the U.S. government’s terrorist watch list, which claimed that more than 40 percent of the 680,000 people on the list have “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.” (According to CNN, U.S. officials familiar with the situation say the claim is incorrect, and is based on a misreading of the documents.)
The more cautious among you may believe that using Tor will keep your Web browsing safe from prying eyes, but think again: a study has revealed that merely visiting the Tor Web site can cause you to be flagged for NSA surveillance. In retrospect, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise, given that Tor was developed in part by the U.S. military.
So be aware: there’s always someone watching you. But fear not, privacy lovers, since “Weird Al” Yankovic has a simple, inexpensive solution: aluminum foil (which has the side benefit of keeping your sandwich nice and fresh). OK, maybe a tinfoil hat isn’t a proper solution, but if you’ve been following along this far, you deserve a laugh — make sure to watch the video all the way through.
OS X Server generally does a good job of hiding the complexity of managing the Unix apps toiling away under its hood. One place where that breaks down a bit is with the Websites service, which attempts to put a pretty face on the industrial-strength Apache Web server. It’s not technically difficult to configure the Websites service, but there’s a lot to know, and that’s where Charles Edge focuses his advice in Chapter 10, “Web Services,” of the in-progress “Take Control of OS X Server.”
In particular, it’s a little tricky to tease out the difference between OS X Server’s default sites that answer to any hostname, and custom sites, which answer only to specific hostnames and can run on ports other than 80 and 443. Charles also explains redirects and aliases, access control via groups, and advanced options such as enabling server side includes and CGIs.
We encourage everyone to read the first two chapters of “Take Control of OS X Server” to see where the book is going — all subsequent chapters are available only to TidBITS members for now. If you have already joined the TidBITS membership program, log in to the TidBITS site using the email address from which you joined. The full ebook of “Take Control of OS X Server” will be available for purchase by everyone in PDF, EPUB, and Mobipocket (Kindle) formats once it’s complete. Published chapters include:
- Chapter 1: “Introducing OS X Server”
- Chapter 2: “Choosing Server Hardware”
- Chapter 3: “Preparation and Installation”
- Chapter 4: “Directory Services”
- Chapter 5: “DNS Service”
- Chapter 6: “File Sharing”
- Chapter 7: “Collaboration Services”
- Chapter 8: “Mail Services”
- Chapter 9: “Mobile Device Management”
Publishing this book in its entirety for TidBITS members as it’s being written is just one of the ways we thank TidBITS members for their support. We hope it encourages those of you who have been reading TidBITS for free for years to help us continue to bring you more of the professionally written and edited articles you’ve become accustomed to each week. For more details on what the membership program means to us, see “Support TidBITS in 2014 via the TidBITS Membership Program” (9 December 2013).
I’m an amateur photographer, with a love of classic photos of my city (New York) by artists such as Berenice Abbott, Rudy Burckhardt, Bruce Davidson, and Helen Levitt. I’ve worked on capturing buildings, street scenes, and portraits in my own neighborhood, much as they did, and sometimes I want my images to be in black and white, to convey the timelessness that I feel when I’m on my street.
Unfortunately the standard tools for photo manipulation — Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, and Apple’s soon-to-be-discontinued Aperture — are not really designed for editing black-and-white photography; their focus is on color photos. They don’t offer the adjustments needed to turn an average black-and-white image into something spectacular.
Filling this void is the new Tonality from Macphun. It’s $19.99 for the standard version or $69.99 for the Pro version; it requires OS X 10.9 Mavericks and at least 4 GB of RAM.
Developer Macphun has created a number of photo-editing apps over the years for both the Mac and iOS. You may know about their FX Photo Studio app for iPhone, iPad, and Mac; exclusive to the Mac they offer Intensify, Snapheal, and Focus 2. Their software is designed to appeal to the hobbyist as well as the professional photographer.
Tonality is also intended for both amateur photographers and professionals, and the look and layout were designed to be fairly intuitive for anyone accustomed to Photoshop or Lightroom. I use Lightroom, and the gray color palette plus the sliders along the right side of the window feel familiar.
For beginners, Tonality provides a number of presets that can give you some amazing effects with a single click. For example, the Vintage category offers presets for Civil War, Old and Faded, Tintype, and Wild West. The Portrait presets include Dark Beauty, Dreamy, and Old Hollywood Glamour.
And along the bottom you can see a preview of what your photo will look like with that preset. There are 10 categories of presets, which can bring even a novice like me close to the look I want.
Whether you start from scratch or from an effect preset, you can then play with Tonality’s various sliders to adjust the image further. The slider categories are Tone, Clarity, Structure, Color Filter, Tone Curve, Split Toning, Glow, Lens Blur, Texture Overlay (which lets you upload your own textures, or you can use the built-in ones), Vignette, Grain, Photo Frames, and Opacity. I found the number of sliders and options a little overwhelming, yet I can see how the endless combinations and minute adjustments would be of
use to a professional photographer looking to achieve a very specific effect.
Like Photoshop, Tonality offers brushes that let you apply changes to only part of the image; a gradient tool that lets you apply graduated settings (although only in a straight line); and a histogram to show you the tonal gradations in your image. Also like Photoshop, you can combine multiple layers to create your image, apply different settings to different layers, and turn layers off and on. This is where things can really get interesting if you’re inventive and/or do some planning.
If you build a series of settings that you want to use on multiple photos, or that you want to save for future use, you can create your own presets.
Tonality’s sharing function works with all the usual suspects (Mail, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter) as well as SmugMug. After you’ve worked on an image, you can open it directly into the photography app of your choice, including iPhoto, Aperture, Photoshop, Lightroom, or any of the Macphun apps. You can of course also export it in a bunch of different formats, including JPEG, PNG, TIFF, PDF, and PSD.
What I’ve described above is the standard version of Tonality. For pros, or those who want to use Tonality as a plug-in within Photoshop, Lightroom, Elements, or Aperture, instead of as a standalone app, there’s Tonality Pro, which costs $50 more. Along with being able to use it as a plug-in, Tonality Pro adds:
- More layering options
- More layers per image (8 versus 5)
- More histogram options
- The ability to edit color temperature and tint
Although I’ve been testing Tonality Pro, I’d be fine with the standard version, and you could easily start with the standard version and upgrade to Tonality Pro at a later date. The Lightroom plug-in is the most useful part of Tonality Pro for me since it lets me do all my editing in one app instead of two.
I found it easy to get started with Tonality, thanks to the presets. Here’s the very first image I created with it: the original color photo I took (in Ocean Grove, New Jersey), the initial import into Tonality in black and white, and the finished photo after I played around with sliders and options. All done in maybe an hour.
I’m finding it harder to achieve a specific result that I already have in mind; that’s going to require practice to get a
better understanding of how the sliders and layers and masking can combine to create various effects.
I know I’m not the next Rudy Burckhardt, and yet in experimenting with Tonality I’ve created a few images that started out entirely average and are starting to look amazing (to my eye, anyway, and that’s really all that counts). I’m going to keep playing with it, exploring its options, and using it for all my black-and-white editing, right alongside my color work in Lightroom and Photoshop.
[Caroline Green is a partner in IvanExpert, which offers Mac consulting and support for home users and small businesses in New York City.]
BitLit has announced a pilot program with publisher HarperCollins in which owners of selected paper editions of HarperCollins books can purchase and download low-cost ebook versions of those titles. The cost of the ebooks ranges from $1.99 to $2.99. At the start, the program offers only six HarperCollins titles, but new books are planned to be added to the program, initially at one per week.
Obviously, this is a just a very small pilot program, but it’s an interesting development. HarperCollins is the first of the “Big Five” publishers (a group including Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster) to sign up for what BitLit calls its “ebook bundling” program — it’s really more of an ebook upgrade program.
The Big Five generally have been somewhat chary of engaging with ebook retailers and subscription services: though HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, for example, have partnered with the Oyster and Scribd subscription services, the deal is only for books in their backlists. Furthermore, none of the five are currently participating in Amazon’s new subscription-based Kindle Unlimited program (for more on that, see “FunBITS: Kindle Unlimited Is Pretty Limited,” 1 August 2014).
In any case, BitLit offers an unusual proposition that distinguishes it from subscription services: rather than providing an all-you-can-read book buffet for a monthly subscription price, BitLit targets readers who want ebook copies of books that they already own in paper. And, while it’s true that Amazon has created a program similar to BitLit’s, called Kindle MatchBook, MatchBook applies only to paper books that customers have purchased through Amazon. Kindle Matchbook is perhaps most attractive when buying a physical book as a gift; you can keep the ebook for yourself.
Unlike Kindle MatchBook, readers can get digital versions of their paper books regardless of where or when they originally purchased those books. The BitLit program works like this: you write your name on the copyright page of your paper book by hand and then take a photo of that page with the BitLit app on your smartphone (versions of the app exist for both iOS and Android). Once BitLit verifies your paper book, you receive an email with download links for the ebook.
BitLit (and to a lesser extent, Kindle MatchBook) raises an important question: Why would anyone want to buy a book that they already own? Is that a market worth pursuing?
As a likely member of that target market, I’m intrigued. I love my paper books, but I love my ebooks, too, and I can imagine wanting ebook versions of many titles that I own in paper — heck, I already have a fair number of such duplicates! Sometimes I got the duplicates to complete a book series that I owned half in paper and half digitally. But I’ve never done it for a series I owned completely in paper. If I could cheaply fill out my digital collection to include other series I own in paper, it would scratch a small, but very real itch for this bibliophile. It would also be nice to have ebook copies of those few paper books I return to regularly until their covers have begun to fall off.
The ebook upgrade idea makes some sense for publishers, too: the opportunity to sell the same book twice to the same customer, even if only for a fraction of the original retail price, is compelling. But it all depends on whether there are enough people like me to make it more than just a tiny niche market, served, if at all, only as an afterthought. For me, a successful ebook upgrade program would have to go deep into a publisher’s backlist, and cover a broad range of titles. I have no idea if that makes good business sense.
It’s early days yet. BitLit’s ebook upgrade concept is intriguing, and much more enticing to someone like me than “all you can read by no one you ever heard of” book subscription services like Kindle Unlimited. Can such a concept thrive? Maybe we’ll have a chance to find out if the BitLit pilot with HarperCollins expands significantly beyond the tiny handful of titles it currently offers.
There’s a special place reserved in literary hell for those who misunderstand George Orwell, as Amazon just did (and as I’ll explain shortly). At 1:30 AM Eastern Time on Saturday, Amazon sent email to authors registered in its Kindle Direct Publishing program with the Subject line, “Important Kindle request.” Rather than being related to account matters, the missive instead detailed Amazon’s dispute with Hachette, and urged bizarre action by KDP participants. Amazon also published the letter on a dedicated readersunited.com Web site.
Although only the latest salvo in the Hachette dispute, the letter is part of a larger battle between Amazon and the “Big Five” publishing houses in America. Hachette Book Group may be the smallest of the Big Five, but it’s part of a much larger international conglomerate, Lagardère. In 2012, Hachette and the other big publishers settled a lawsuit with the Department of Justice that maintained the companies had colluded with Apple in 2010 to fix ebook prices. (See “Explaining the Apple Ebook Price Fixing Suit,” 10 July 2013, for all the details.) Apple lost in court, is pursuing an appeal, and has agreed to a conditional $450 million settlement pending the outcome of the appeal.
Hachette’s contract with Amazon was apparently the first to come up for renewal, with Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins coming next (so we can likely expect to see more news as those companies move into the hot seat currently occupied by Hachette). In May 2014, presumably to increase negotiating pressure on Hachette, Amazon removed pre-order buttons on Hachette books, eliminated discounts on Hachette books, and delayed shipments of Hachette books to purchasers. Amazon did the same with Warner Brothers DVDs around the same time for several weeks, and a few days ago pulled pre-orders for physical versions of
Disney movies. Amazon is also engaged in a similar action against Bonnier Media in Germany, where antitrust laws are stronger and more strictly enforced.
The precise details of why Amazon and Hachette are at loggerheads remain unknown, although it appears the primary disagreement — at least according to insiders and public statements by both companies — is that Amazon wants to price all ebooks at no more than $9.99 while still making a profit from them, and Hachette is resisting. Under the antitrust consent degree to which Hachette agreed, Amazon was free to set retail prices for two years. That period is over, and Hachette now wants to set the retail price for ebooks, offering Amazon a percentage of the retail price. In essence, Hachette is looking to use the agency model, which gives pricing control to the publisher, whereas Amazon wants to stick with the wholesale model, in which
resellers pay a fixed wholesale price and set whatever retail price they want. In many cases, the agency model provides a higher profit to a bookseller.
Another piece of the background is a public letter that appeared in a recent Sunday New York Times. The letter, signed by over 900 authors, most of whom don’t even write for Hachette, and reportedly paid for by the wealthiest among them, criticized Amazon for harming authors by messing with sales. The text is available at another dedicated Web site at authorsunited.com.
Amazon’s letter opens by misstating publishing history, asserting that publishers rejected and fought against cheap paperback editions when they were first introduced, and drawing a connection between paperbacks and ebook editions. In fact, paperbacks were initially ignored, became absurdly successful, and were then adopted by the big firms as a way to extend revenue into new outlets (outside bookstores) and reach a new audience. Paperbacks were and remain part of the diversification of the publishing market, which Amazon should know because it, well, sells print books. (Huffington Post has a good summary of accounts from this period.)
Amazon’s letter then contains the odd statement:
The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.
One might think the Amazon Books Team, the nominal signatory of the letter, had become unhinged. In the actual event, Orwell loved paperbacks, was committing an act of irony and hyperbole in suggesting a combined effort (impossible in any case), and went on to state that the low price of paperbacks could destroy the economic basis on which authors, booksellers, and publishers functioned.
This open letter contains escalated and abbreviated versions of previous economic claims by Amazon, and advises bizarrely that KDP authors (the email) and average readers (the Web site) should send nastygrams to the head of Hachette accusing him of collusion, among other slightly off-kilter talking points. This may be because the ad paid for by authors suggests people email Jeff Bezos directly. It smacks of a temper tantrum.
The trouble is that in this and previous efforts, Amazon misstates and misleads on the numbers. Two weeks ago, the same Amazon Books Team posted a note on its Kindle forums that tried to establish why a $9.99 book price made more sense than $14.99: the same ebook priced lower supposedly sells 1.74 times as many copies. Amazon claims it has done this analysis across many titles, even though that makes little sense since it’s in a position to know that no arbitrary book will automatically sell more copies because it is priced lower. Many particular books may exhibit changes,
but in order to test this, Amazon must have engaged in presenting different prices to different customers, changing prices for periods of time, and so forth. No two books are identical, so their testing had to be using the same book and exposing different prices. This yields some broad information, but isn’t applicable in every case.
More broadly, Amazon’s erratic response ignores most of the realities of publishing. The publishers in question, and most publishers, continue to print books as well as issue them in ebook editions. TidBITS Publishing, with its Take Control series, is one of a relatively small number of publishers (across fiction, non-fiction, textbooks, and more) that delivers books solely in electronic form.
As a result, publishers have to deal with the cost of production across multiple media: ebooks are not magically free to make once you have a print book. (I’ve experienced this first hand, as have many other Take Control authors.) Plus, any potential profit from a single book has to be spread across the various formats in which it appears. Conventional publishers who produce hardcover editions want to keep the initial ebook price high — though low relative to the print equivalent — to avoid eroding the lucrative margins on hardcover sales. When hardcover sales ebb, publishers then typically produce a paperback edition, and cut the ebook price, often to below $10, if it was above that price to begin with. Over time, ebook prices
for the same title tend to drop as demand lags.
The science-fiction author John Scalzi offers some first-hand insight across his many titles, which are issued in hardcover, paperback, and ebook versions, and points out that the $14.99 and $19.99 ebook prices that Amazon claims are demanded by publishers are rare in practice.
Publishers aren’t all happiness and light: the big ones are following the money to varying degrees of success. But it is abundantly true that most books from most publishers make very little profit after overhead, production costs, and author royalties are subtracted. A number of books lose money, but hopefully not too many, lest the publisher perish. Importantly, a handful of books each season are blockbusters that, combined with evergreen titles that recouped their costs in previous years, account for the majority of whatever profits are recorded. One shouldn’t pity the poor Big Five publishers, but it’s not all peaches and cream even at the top of the market.
Hachette’s CEO responded to people who followed Amazon’s advice to write him, and the details he provided are more in line with what is publicly observable and which those of us in publishing know to be true. Among other things he notes that 80 percent of Hachette’s titles are priced at $9.99 or less; most of its more expensive books are $11.99 or $12.99; and the publisher’s cost differential for print books is about $2 to $3. That last point is disarming: by admitting the actual difference, he also reveals the economics of pricing across both formats and time.
So it’s not really about pricing in general, but timing. To be more precise, it seems that Amazon is proposing that readers don’t need to wait for the market to reflect the price Amazon wants to charge immediately. What Hachette is saying (and is the truth) is that pricing is based on demand: some people are willing to pay more to have a book sooner. Readers know that a paperback costing 40 to 60 percent of the hardcover price will eventually appear, and that used copies will eventually become available (on Amazon, no less) at 5 to 20 percent of the new hardcover price. And yet people persist in buying expensive hardcover editions to be able to read the latest and greatest right away. That, my friends, is the market: publishers are
not delivering penicillin to the Arctic; buyers are not heroin addicts who have no control over their actions.
Amazon wants to brand this all as beneficial to the book buyer: a $9.99 ebook is cheaper than one that costs more. It’s also trying to pretend to be the authors’ friend by suggesting that publishers are cheating authors by not giving them a bigger split of the proceeds. (That latter point may be true, but see above: only some books make money, and better-known authors who have reliable sales already get percentages closer to what Amazon suggests every author should receive. It’s more reasonable to say that most publishers are inefficient, and that better use of money could produce more sales or a greater share to authors.)
Shouldn’t we applaud lower prices? After all, as consumers shouldn’t we want to pay the lowest possible price for any fungible item: all ebooks being exact digital copies, price is the only differentiation. However, Amazon wouldn’t actually be lowering the price of many books and, for all we know, it would set $9.99 as a new target to which it would push formerly cheaper books. Meeting the demands of a firm that already has a dominant share of the market in a way that cedes it more control and likely market share is a great way to put it in the position of becoming a monopsony (the only or primary buyer in a market) and monopolist. Historically speaking, that’s unlikely to benefit consumers.
Amazon remains mostly concerned about Amazon, a reflexive behavior engaged in by most businesses. The trouble is that, as a market, ebooks took off thanks to the introduction of the Kindle, and Amazon grabbed a large share of the market. But growth in ebooks as a percentage of revenue has slowed very quickly — probably much more quickly than Amazon had anticipated.
Ebooks were once a negligible part of book sales, but in 2013, they comprised about 27 percent of the roughly $15 billion of American adult consumer book sales (fiction and non-fiction). Across all categories, the U.S. book industry grossed about $27 billion in 2013. As a percentage of children’s book sales, the ebook share actually dropped because a Hunger Games book was released in 2012, and no similar blockbuster appeared in 2013.
While ebooks now represent billions in sales, the stagnation in growth means that the majority of profit for most books remains in print editions, which is bad for Amazon, which heavily discounts mass-market print books to drive a high volume of sales. Amazon was betting in part on a greater shift to selling Kindle ebooks — typically with digital rights management (DRM) that locks readers to its Kindle ecosystem — to drive increases in profit, and steal both revenue and profit from remaining brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Amazon has already hit bumps in the road on its strategy to trade profit for growth, something it has pursued for its entire 20-year history, and which investors were willing to buy into until recently. Amazon lost $127 million in the last quarter, and projects a loss of $800 million in the current one. It has only sporadically been mildly profitable. But you can’t be a startup forever. Amazon’s business problems and stock market drop (about $320 per share now, down 20 percent from over $400 at the start of 2014) have also likely emboldened publishers to take a stronger stance.
Publishers could pursue a more sensible strategy that would reduce Amazon’s power by taking a page from the music industry. When Apple dominated digital song downloads, the industry broke the power of iTunes by removing DRM. This had previously been seen as inconceivable, but books are even easier to copy (through retyping, OCR, or simple encryption breaking) than music. Amazon was one of the main firms to leap into the fray and sell music at competitive prices; Apple was forced to rejigger its pricing scheme, and it lost ownership of the digital music market, though it still maintains a huge share thanks to its early dominance and insanely popular hardware ecosystem.
To break Amazon’s lock on ebooks, publishers could insist that DRM-free EPUB become the format of choice, eliminating the connection between reading on a Kindle and purchasing from Amazon. (It’s possible, but not easy, to read EPUBs on at least some Kindle models; see “How to Download EPUB, PDF, and Mobipocket to the Kindle Fire,” 22 April 2012.) Amazon would likely be able to update Kindles to use EPUB easily, as the KF8 format it uses for devices released in the last few years is already essentially EPUB. Since all other ebook reading devices and apps already support EPUB, readers
would be free to choose from whom to buy and on what device to read without Amazon’s DRM-bolstered link between its store and Kindle ecosystem.
By switching to a model in which any ebook could be purchased from any reseller and read on any device, publishers wouldn’t find themselves beholden to Amazon as they are today, and the bully pulpit that Amazon uses to spread its message (and bully authors) would disappear.
Long before podcasts, I was a fan of talk radio. But — and I realize this might sound like sacrilege — I’ve never been a fan of National Public Radio. The slow, hypnotic voices (except for the overly exuberant Car Talk guys); the exceedingly long stories on things I’m not that interested in; the random artsy interludes; the zzzZZZZzzzZZZzzzzZZZ.
Oh, sorry. Where was I? Ah, yes, the problem is that most of the people I find to be well-informed in matters of the world are ardent NPR listeners, so I keep trying again and again to listen. I’m not alone in that; a 2007 NPR document stated, “We have learned in focus groups with younger listeners that they are interested in many of the topics that NPR covers, but often find the programming boring or staid.” Yeah, I’m a millennial, and I realize I’m on someone’s lawn.
So how can NPR reach Nintendo-addled whippersnappers such as myself, saving us from the screaming heads of 24-hour cable news channels and the latest trivialities from the Kardashians? NPR has taken a page from the online radio service Pandora to launch NPR One, a free service and iPhone app that delivers a semi-random assortment of news stories.
When you first launch the app, which requires iOS 7, you’re given a quick video tutorial, then asked to sign in via Google+, Facebook, or an NPR.org account. Since I didn’t have the patience to create a new account, I opted to log in via my iPhone’s linked Facebook account. Although nothing was said about how NPR One would use or share the data, I worry a little about surrendering my media-consumption tastes to the tender mercies of Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithms.
NPR One automatically identifies your nearest member station so it can blend in local content and better tailor the playlist to topics that interest you. And of course, hit you up for donations, which are mixed into the ads between segments.
What I love about NPR One is that when I open the app, it automatically plays the latest hourly newscast, so I can keep up with world events outside my tech bubble with a minimum of fuss. However, if you wanted to pick up on a story you weren’t finished with, you might find this annoying. All content is streamed, so while you can listen in the car, be aware that you may be chewing through your cellular bandwidth.
Playback controls are uncluttered and will be familiar to fans of Pandora. There’s a 15-second rewind button, a Play/Pause button, and a skip button. You can also drag your finger along the scrubber to skip to a specific place, a feature executed with excellence. When you touch the bar, it zooms to take up the entire screen, simplifying precise placement.
If a story doesn’t capture your interest, tap the skip button to move on to the next one. This is where you start to realize the genius of the NPR One app. Just as you’ve long been able to scan a newspaper’s headlines and ledes to get the gist of stories (they’re deliberately written this way because publishers realize we’re lazy), you can now do the same with audio news.
The skip button, like most of the controls, is nice and large. If anything, it’s a bit too large, since it’s easy to tap accidentally and move on to the next story, without an easy way to go back.
A few other buttons are so small they’re frustrating to tap, such as the “interesting” button (it would be weird to “like” an Ebola outbreak), which tells NPR One which stories you’d like to listen to, and the share button, which I can never hit on the first few tries.
I do give NPR One a big thumbs-up for letting me share through my Twitter client of choice, Tweetbot. The app also lets you share via Google+, as well as iOS’s built-in Facebook and Twitter options.
If you don’t want to restrict yourself to NPR’s algorithmically driven (and thus somewhat random) selection, you can also search manually. The search works fine if you know what radio show or NPR podcast you want to find, but the handful of suggestions don’t help much in discovering new material. Alas, there’s no directory to browse, leaving me listening to things I already know or that are played for me — NPR would do well to add browsing.
But the lack of a directory doesn’t detract from the otherwise brilliant NPR One. Its developers have figured out a way to deliver NPR content to listeners who are accustomed to quick news snippets on Twitter and Facebook. As someone who rarely has time to listen to podcasts anymore, it’s great to have an endless source of news to listen to for a few minutes at a time.
GraphicConverter 9.3 — Lemkesoft has released GraphicConverter 9.3 with several newly added features. The venerable graphic conversion and editing utility now has support for recording mouse clicks, exporting keyword palette entries as a text file, applying a browser extension filter to folders, and exporting a lossy PNG file. Other additions include the Lens Correction, Gradient Intensity, and Edges effects. GraphicConverter 9.3 also improves the speed of the browser, adds alpha channel support to multicrop, improves the Save for Web dialog, ensures the browser info pane remembers the last selected
tab, and fixes several instances of possible crashes. Note that the Mac App Store edition is still stuck on version 9.2.1 as of this writing. ($39.95 new, free update, 239 MB, release notes, 10.7+)
Read/post comments about GraphicConverter 9.3.
Mactracker 7.3.3 — Ian Page has released Mactracker 7.3.3, which adds recent releases for the MacBook Pro (see “Apple Upgrades 2014 MacBook Pro CPUs and RAM, Lowers Prices,” 29 July 2014) and 21.5-inch iMac (see “Apple Introduces Entry-Level iMac for $1,099,” 18 June 2014). The popular encyclopedia of Apple products gains details about the latest OS X and iOS releases, the 16 GB configuration of the iPod touch (5th generation), and the Apple Lisa and Apple Lisa 2. It also updates Support Status for Apple’s latest Vintage and Obsolete
products. (Free from Mactracker Web site or Mac App Store, 34.6 MB, release notes)
Read/post comments about Mactracker 7.3.3.
Airfoil 4.8.8 — Rogue Amoeba has released Airfoil 4.8.8, a small but important update to the audio transmission utility. The release addresses several changes that Apple made to its Gatekeeper system and restores compatibility for those running (the as-yet-unreleased) OS X 10.9.5 Mavericks and later. Additionally, update improves how it filters its background processes for the Source pop-up menu, restores the capability to capture Text to Speech audio, and provides relevant track titles to Nicecast when using Airfoil Speakers. ($25 new with a 20 percent discount for TidBITS members, free update, 14.9 MB, release notes, 10.7+)
Read/post comments about Airfoil 4.8.8.
iTunes 11.3.1 — Apple has released iTunes 11.3.1 with a couple of podcast-related fixes. The update squashes a bug that prevented subscribed podcasts from updating with new episodes and rectifies an issue that caused iTunes to become unresponsive while browsing podcast episodes in List view. iTunes 11.3.1 is available as a direct download from Apple’s iTunes Web page or via Software Update. (Free, 229 MB, 10.6.8+)
Read/post comments about iTunes 11.3.1.
Carbon Copy Cloner 3.5.6 — Bombich Software has released Carbon Copy Cloner 3.5.6, a small maintenance release for the backup utility. The update improves the implementation of a bug fix that was introduced in version 3.5.5 related to handling corrupted Access Control List entries, fixes a Drobo-related issue that resulted in the backup task being aborted prematurely, improves filtering of errors caused by a Synology NAS file sharing server’s inability to serve up Synology-proprietary extended attributes, prohibits copying a source volume with ownership disabled directly to the startup disk, and withdraws a configuration change
that did not improve detection of dropped connections to a remote Macintosh. ($39.95 new, free update, 10.8 MB, release notes, 10.6+)
Read/post comments about Carbon Copy Cloner 3.5.6.
Hider 2.1 — MacPaw has released version 2.1 of its Hider app, which enables you to hide and encrypt private data on your Mac (see Nick Mediati’s review, “Hider 2 Promises File Privacy for the Masses,” 8 May 2014). The update restructures the vault database for improved handling of unforeseen interruptions and adds advanced secure erase options added that make traces of hidden files unrecoverable. Hider 2.1 also introduces the capability to select a custom primary vault location on your drive, improves the workflow for external drives, adds a user interface state preservation,
improves compatibility with FAT and ExFAT external drives, and adds drag-and-drop support for the Hider menu bar icon. A free 15-day trial is available at the MacPaw Web site, and Hider 2.1 is available via the Mac App Store. ($19.99 new, free update, 5.7 MB, release notes, 10.8+)
Read/post comments about Hider 2.1.
DEVONthink/DEVONnote 2.7.7 — DEVONtechnologies has updated all three editions of DEVONthink (Personal, Pro, and Pro Office) and DEVONnote to version 2.7.7, adding recognition of source code files from Apple’s new Swift programming language (for more on Swift, see Michael Cohen’s “Swift: Who Is Apple’s New Programming Language For?,” 12 June 2014). The three editions of the DEVONthink document and information manager also improve the speed and reliability of importing and indexing
files; retain more metadata in exported documents; pre-fill the Save panel with tags (when running OS X 10.9 Mavericks); ensure that scroll position, insertion mark position, and selection are retained when toggling views; scale images in new formatted notes or notes imported from Evernote; and work around unspecified issues with the Yosemite Public Beta. All editions of DEVONthink and DEVONnote now require 10.7.5 Lion at minimum if purchased from the DEVONtechnologies Web site. If you purchased DEVONthink Personal or DEVONnote from the Mac App Store, 10.8.3
Mountain Lion or later is required. Note, however, that both of those Mac App Store titles have yet to be updated to version 2.7.7 as of this writing. (All updates are free. DEVONthink Pro Office, $149.95 new, release notes; DEVONthink Professional, $79.95 new, release notes; DEVONthink Personal, $49.95 new, release notes; DEVONnote, $24.95 new, release notes; 25 percent discount for TidBITS members on all editions of DEVONthink and DEVONnote. 10.7.5+)
Read/post comments about DEVONthink/DEVONnote 2.7.7.
This week in ExtraBITS, a programmer has figured out how to use Apple’s upcoming Swift programming language for scripting, Walt Mossberg reveals Steve Jobs’s dream of open Wi-Fi networks, the inexpensive (and non-profit) iOSDevCamp 2014 is coming soon, you can read back issues of The Magazine for free for a while, Flappy Bird is making a comeback, and HarperCollins is investigating more ways to bundle print and electronic books.
Using Swift as a Scripting Language — Programmers typically have to learn several languages to do their jobs. In the Apple world, that might include Objective-C to code Mac and iOS apps and AppleScript to automate common tasks. But developer Filip W has shown that Apple’s new Swift programming language can be used both for app development and as a scripting language. As a proof of concept, he developed a script to change his Mac’s wallpaper in Swift, without using Xcode.
Steve Jobs Dreamed of Open Wi-Fi Networks — After the release of the iPhone, Steve Jobs told Re/code’s Walt Mossberg that he was so frustrated by AT&T’s slow cellular network and the general lack of open Wi-Fi access points that he came up with a plan to make it easy for users to share their Wi-Fi networks with strangers safely. He even wanted to create an industry consortium of sorts to make guest networks a standard feature of wireless routers. Jobs’s frustration could have been the inspiration for the guest network feature in AirPort base stations, though it might also have just
been a natural development.
Upcoming iOSDevCamp 2014 Promises Three-Day Hackathon — For those interested in iOS development, the non-profit iOSDevCamp 2014 is coming up on 22 August 2014 at the eBay offices in San Jose, California, and there’s still time to register. The three-day hackathon will cover all of Apple’s upcoming technologies, like HealthKit and HomeKit, as well as robotics, big data, alternate currencies and more. Also, you can look forward to catered meals on Saturday and Sunday, Saturday night gaming, and lots of opportunities for collaboration and networking. Not bad for a $100 registration fee!
Read The Magazine for Free — Our own Glenn Fleishman’s general-interest publication, The Magazine, has revamped its iOS app, releasing a version 2.0 using the TypeEngine publishing system. To mark the change, Glenn is opening up the app’s first 47 issues for free download via the new app. New issues, starting with number 48, cost $1.99 each, or come twice monthly for subscribers at $1.99 per month or $19.99 per year. After 29 August 2014, individual back issues will cost $1.99.
Flappy Bird Returns as an Amazon Fire TV Exclusive — Flappy Bird was a surprising smash hit on the iPhone and iPad until developer Dong Nguyen pulled it in fear of what its addictive gameplay was doing to users. Now, Flappy Bird is back as an exclusive to Amazon’s Fire TV (to find out how the Fire TV stacks up as a gaming device, see “Fire Watch with Me: Amazon Fire TV vs. Apple TV,” 13 May 2014). Relaunched as Flappy Bird Family, the game now features multiplayer support and additional hazards, like
HarperCollins Continues to Explore Ebook Bundling Avenues — HarperCollins, one of the “Big Five” book publishers, is continuing to explore ways to sell ebook/print bundles. Its latest foray is a partnership with major print book distributor Ingram and BookShout, a company that provides ebooks directly to readers. The trio has signed eleven independent bookstores to participate in the program, through which customers buying print books at the bookstores can also purchase low-price access codes that they would then
use to download the matching ebooks directly from BookShout.