TidBITS#1272/11-May-2015

In this feature-packed issue of TidBITS, photographer Jeff Carlson compares two new solutions for cloud-based photo management: Apple’s Photos and Adobe’s Lightroom CC. Josh Centers once again catches up with the snoops, detailing new bills in Congress, recently revealed surveillance programs, a ranking of presidential candidates on mass surveillance, and more. Finally in FunBITS, Geoff Duncan explores a Google tour of the legendary Abbey Road Studios, where some of the most celebrated rock albums were recorded; don’t miss his spectacular audio version! Notable software releases this week include Fantastical 2.0.4, ChronoSync 4.6.1 and ChronoAgent 1.5.2, Downcast 1.1.10, and Safari 8.0.6, 7.1.6, and 6.2.6.
 
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Photos Everywhere with Lightroom CC and Photos for OS X

  by Jeff Carlson: jeff@necoffee.com, @jeffcarlson
  3 comments

It’s not enough these days to store and manage photos on a single computer; we want those photos on our other devices, too. But we also want the photos we capture on the iPhone (and iPad) to go the other direction and be added to the photo libraries on our Macs. And all editing and organization efforts should sync as well.

In April 2015, Apple released Photos for OS X, which replaces iPhoto and Aperture and supports iCloud Photo Library for sharing images on multiple Apple devices. Later that month, Adobe announced Photoshop Lightroom CC with a focus not just on new features, but also on how the photo management software is part of a broader mobile workflow that includes photos on tablets and phones.

What may seem a minor convenience — look, you can take a picture with your iPhone and it appears on your Mac! — is the start of a notable shift in how we treat digital photos. Let’s take a look at how both applications — both ecosystems, really — achieve this goal.

iCloud Cover -- Apple actually did the thing that customers have been asking for since the introduction of My Photo Stream: sync everything everywhere. If the image is in your Photos library in OS X, it will appear in the Photos app of every Apple device you own, from the iPad and iPhone to the Apple Watch. (The watch is initially set to include only photos you’ve marked as favorites, but it can sync any album of your choice, including All Photos; the number of images that appear depends on how much space you’ve allotted for photo storage, up to 500 photos occupying 75 MB.) The lone straggler is the Apple TV, which supports My Photo Stream and iCloud Photo Sharing, but not yet iCloud Photo Library.

If you enable iCloud Photo Library, the Photos app on your Mac uploads the photos in your library to iCloud. Depending on the size of your library and the speed of your Internet connection, this process will likely take a while — possibly days.

(A quick reminder: iCloud Photo Library is not required to use the new Photos application. Those upgrading from iPhoto and Aperture can continue to use Photos without the iCloud component. If you choose that route, you can still move photos to an iPhone or iPad via iTunes, and copy photos taken on an iOS device into Photos. But there won’t be any synchronization of edits or other organization work.)

Of course, an average Photos library won’t fit on an iOS device. To include everything, iCloud sends compressed, low-resolution thumbnails that take up far less storage. When you want to view an image, a higher resolution version is downloaded as needed — a small progress wheel appears in the lower-right corner as the image is transferred. If you have a small library, you can opt to download originals instead of compressed versions on an iOS device: go to Settings > Photos & Camera and choose Download and Keep Originals.


You can also synchronize a Photos library among multiple Macs signed in to the same Apple ID. In that situation, Photos offers the option to download and store full-resolution originals or optimized versions; the latter is great for accessing your library on a MacBook Air with limited storage that you use when traveling, for example. It also comes into play if you want to free up space on your main Mac. The originals remain stored in iCloud, but I don’t consider that a replacement for a good backup system. In my case, my library is stored on my MacBook Pro in optimized form, but I also set up Photos on a Mac mini in my office to keep the originals. That’s in addition to local backups made to external hard drives. Don’t skimp when it comes to backing up your photos!


Creative Cloud Cover -- Lightroom CC (and the previous version, Lightroom 5, if it’s part of a Creative Cloud subscription) takes a similar approach to Apple’s, but it doesn’t try to be comprehensive. The conduit for transferring photos between the desktop version of Lightroom (in OS X and Windows) and the Lightroom mobile app in iOS is Creative Cloud, Adobe’s own data nimbus.

Many photographers, myself included, prefer to use Lightroom to manage libraries and edit photos (you can read more about that in my book “Take Control of Your Digital Photos on a Mac”). Until recently, though, accessing photos from an iOS device wasn’t easy. The most direct route was to connect the iPhone or iPad to the Mac via USB, and import the photos into Lightroom just as you would from a regular camera. It’s not an onerous step, but I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting that my iPhone rarely makes a physical connection to my Mac anymore. Since all the other data I need is transferred via iCloud, I simply forget to plug it in. And, of course, the connection wasn’t bi-directional, so there was no way to get photos from the Mac back to the iOS device within the Lightroom ecosystem.

The Lightroom mobile app, via Creative Cloud, makes that connection for me. The main difference between Apple’s iCloud model is that Lightroom syncs only particular folders you specify on the Mac or within Lightroom mobile, so you can’t access your entire photo library on the iOS device. In the Collections list in Lightroom CC, you click the sync button to the left of a folder’s name to upload its contents to Creative Cloud.

Image

In Lightroom mobile, the folder appears as a new synced collection. Once a synced collection is created, anything you add to it — on the Mac or the iOS device — appears in both places. What isn’t initially apparent is the capability to automatically send new images captured with an iPhone or iPad to Lightroom on the Mac.


It is possible, though. In Lightroom mobile, create a new collection (tap the + button) and then tap the ellipsis (…) at the lower-right corner of a collection’s cover to view more options. Tap Enable Auto Add and confirm your action in the dialog that appears. Any new photo you capture using the device appears in that collection and is synced to Lightroom on the desktop via Creative Cloud.


To minimize the amount of storage the synchronized photos occupy on mobile devices, Lightroom first converts the images to Adobe’s lossless DNG (Digital Negative) format, which compresses well without sacrificing detail.

Synchronized Editing in Photos -- Making copies of photos so they appear in multiple locations is one thing, but how do the apps deal with images that you edit? On this front, the situation is much better than it was just a few months ago.

Photos for OS X introduced an improved architecture for working with edits among devices; previously, edits you made in the Photos app on an iPhone or iPad would not transfer to iPhoto or Aperture. (In fact, that limitation still exists if you stick with either of those applications instead of switching to Photos for OS X.) Now, edits made in Photos for iOS transfer to the OS X version and vice-versa. The adjustments are also nondestructive, meaning they aren’t changing the underlying original pixels.

For example, let’s take a photo on the iPhone and make some easily noticeable changes to the Color controls: pushing the Saturation to 1.00, Contrast to 0.71, and Cast to 0.73.


After I tap Done, the app uploads the edited version to iCloud and updates the photo in my library in Photos for OS X. Notice in the Adjust edit mode, the Color settings match what’s on the iPhone.


There is one current limitation, which I hope Apple will iron out in a future update. Photos for OS X includes some adjustments that aren’t found in the iOS version, such as the capability to add a vignette. When I add that to the photo on the Mac, the individual color settings for Saturation, Contrast, and Cast reset to zero — the image doesn’t change, but the values are reset.


At that point the Photos app treats the image as if it were an unedited image. As long as you stick to performing edits that are found in both versions of the Photos app, you can adjust specific settings. (You can also revert to the original image file, which removes all adjustments, and start over.)

Synchronized Editing in Lightroom -- Lightroom’s edits are also nondestructive on the Mac and in Lightroom mobile. Just as with Photos, specific adjustments you make on an iPhone carry over to the desktop. The edits are recorded as text commands, so updating an image on one device requires only that the text description of the changes be synchronized with another device.



One curious detail in Lightroom’s implementation is in what happens when edits not found in Lightroom mobile are applied. The iOS app replicates the Basic pane of the desktop version’s Develop module, but of course Lightroom can do much more. For example, Lightroom can apply a graduated fill on an area of an image, such as when you want to dark just a sky or brighten the foreground at the bottom of a photo.

Even though there’s no graduated filter tool in Lightroom mobile, the effect is applied on the mobile version. In fact, it can then be applied to other photos within Lightroom mobile, too. That’s because Lightroom mobile includes a Copy Settings feature that lets you copy and paste any applied adjustment, not just the ones that have controls in the app, between photos. (Adobe’s Russell Brown explains this process in more detail, including how to create templates for applying specific lens adjustments.)


Synchronized Organization -- A good photo library isn’t a bucket where you toss your images and then shuffle through them later. Many people group photos into albums to better organize them, and also add metadata describing the images, such as titles, captions, and ratings.

Very little of that organization makes the leap between Photos for OS X and the Photos app on iOS devices. Albums are retained, including special albums the applications create to collect favorites, panoramas, videos, slo-mo and time-lapse movies, and bursts. But titles, captions, and keywords aren’t exposed on the iPhone or iPad (Photos for OS X converts star ratings from iPhoto or Aperture to keywords). The metadata is still there, but you can’t see it or edit it Photos for iOS. In place of ratings, Photos uses the binary favorites feature: a photo is either marked as a favorite or not.

Lightroom mobile takes a few steps in the right direction, but it’s still not really designed for the type of organization that Lightroom users are accustomed to. Star ratings sync between platforms, as do flags, but titles, captions, and keywords are absent. The metadata provided by the camera — shutter speed, aperture, ISO, dimensions, and capture time and date — can be viewed as well. (Albums transfer, of course, because you must specify albums to sync.)

Unfortunately, neither Lightroom nor Photos currently allows for synchronization of smart albums. I vastly prefer smart albums to traditional ones because I’m usually looking for characteristics of photos, such as the highest-rated shots from a certain time period.

A Cash Cloud -- Storing and synchronizing photos in each company’s cloud bank isn’t entirely free, of course. Depending on the size of your photo library, you may elect to keep your photos terrestrial.

Apple includes 5 GB of free storage, which is also used by other services such as iCloud Drive and iOS device backups. You can pay monthly for more storage: $0.99 for 20 GB, $3.99 for 200 GB, $9.99 for 500 GB, and $19.99 for 1 TB. If your library is larger than 1 TB, iCloud automatically removes older photos from cloud storage.

Adobe’s Creative Cloud includes just 2 GB of storage with the Photography plan for $9.99 per month. You can also get Lightroom with the $49.99 per month Complete plan, which include 20 GB of storage. That’s a far cry from Apple’s whole-library storage approach, and reflects the notion that you’ll be sharing only some photos, not everything.

Currently, there’s no option to purchase more storage for Creative Cloud, and the only way to get more would be a Creative Cloud for Teams plan, which includes 100 GB of storage, but is significantly more expensive. The Single App plan costs $29.99 per month, and the Complete plan is $69.99 per month. And although the Adobe Web site doesn’t seem to enforce this, Adobe’s phone sales rep told us that Creative Cloud for Teams required a minimum of two licenses, doubling those costs.

Of course, although Creative Cloud offers far less storage for far more money than Apple’s iCloud, you’re also getting either Photoshop CC with the Photography or Single App plans, or Adobe’s full suite of apps. So it’s very much an apples and oranges comparison.

Photos Everywhere, Fewer Headaches -- When it comes to making all your photos available on all your devices, Apple’s new Photos for OS X combined with iCloud Photo Library mostly delivers. There are some quirks, such as being an enormous bandwidth hog, but Apple will hopefully fix those (see “iCloud Photo Library: The Missing FAQ,” 15 April 2015).

If you’re already invested in Adobe’s Lightroom, the steps to synchronization aren’t as comprehensive and require more work, but allow you to stay within the Creative Cloud system, as long as you can keep your usage within the storage limit of your plan.

And both applications are doing the right thing by applying nondestructive edits that can (mostly, in the case of Photos) be tweaked on any device. Synchronization of organizational options is significantly weaker in both, although no metadata is lost in the syncing process.

In the end, if you’ve ever spent too much time trying to move photos between devices or just given up on trying to work with your photos on different devices, the good news is those irritations are a thing of the past. The solutions aren’t free or perfect, and specific irritations may crop up, but those who want multi-device access to a single set of photos now have two entirely viable options thanks to Apple’s Photos with iCloud Photo Library and Adobe’s Lightroom with Creative Cloud.

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Keeping Up with the Snoops X 10.0

  by Josh Centers: josh@tidbits.com, @jcenters
  1 comment

Much has happened since we last caught up with the snoops (see “Keeping Up with the Snoops 9: Junk in the PRISM Trunk,” 17 April 2015). Congress has been busy crafting new bills, a new surveillance program has been revealed, more presidential candidates have entered the race, law enforcement’s battle with Silicon Valley has escalated, and a high-profile leaker has faced a judge.

The Bills, They Are A-Moving -- When we last left you, the Patriot Act was crawling toward a quiet death and the USA Freedom Act was long dead. Since then, Congress has been busy.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) introduced a bill on 21 April 2015 that would extend the Patriot Act until 2020. That would also extend Section 215, which is often cited as the legal basis for mass phone record collection.

A few days later, on 30 April 2015, the House Judiciary Committee brought the USA Freedom Act back from the dead. The previous version was defeated last year (see “Keeping Up with the Snoops 7: Too Many Snoops,” 21 November 2014).

The new bipartisan version of the USA Freedom Act would take several steps to end mass surveillance, allow legal challenges to national security letter gag orders, and help make the FISA court more transparent. But it also includes items to appease those in favor of mass surveillance, such as creating a new call records program operated by private telecom firms, giving the government more authority to track foreigners who enter the United States, and increasing the maximum prison sentence for those aiding terrorists, among other concessions.

Reactions to the new USA Freedom Act are mixed. The Electronic Frontier Foundation called it “far from ideal,” but “a step in the right direction.” The American Civil Liberties Union said that, “Though an improvement over the status quo in some respects, the USA Freedom Act does not go far enough to rein in NSA abuses and contains several concerning provisions.” Civil liberties journalist Marcy Wheeler is entirely skeptical of the bill, saying, “Effectively, by outsourcing the spying to providers, the government aims to evade that law to monitor people who have only tenuous ties to terrorism, and do so with none of the checks against abuse such spying would get in a criminal context.”

As I write this, the House has voted in favor of the new USA Freedom Act.

However, the House also passed the Protecting Cyber Networks Act on 22 April 2015, which encourages information sharing between corporations and the government. A letter signed by 55 civil liberties groups and security experts said, “PCNA would significantly increase the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) access to personal information, and authorize the federal government to use that information for a myriad of purposes unrelated to cybersecurity.”

But even as Congress debates these bills, the legal interpretations of existing law continue to shift. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on 5 May 2015, reversed an earlier decision, proclaiming that the government doesn’t need a warrant to search wireless carriers’ cell phone records.

However, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, on 7 May 2015, ruled that bulk collection of domestic call records under section 215 is illegal. “We do so comfortably in the full understanding that if Congress chooses to authorize such a far‐reaching and unprecedented program, it has every opportunity to do so, and to do so unambiguously,” the judges said.

While Congress continues to debate mass surveillance, it should be noted that multiple reports have declared it useless, at best. A recently declassified government report on the NSA’s Stellarwind program found that mass surveillance and secrecy only hampered efforts to track terrorists. Across the pond, Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe declared, “Mass surveillance does not appear to have contributed to the prevention of terrorist attacks, contrary to earlier assertions made by senior intelligence officials. Instead, resources that might prevent attacks are diverted to mass surveillance, leaving potentially dangerous persons free to act.”

While the European Union has slammed mass surveillance, France is pushing its own Patriot Act. The law would not only enable American-style mass surveillance, but would also allow law enforcement to plant hidden microphones in the homes and vehicles of French citizens.

We’re Listening to Your Phone Calls -- President Obama once remarked, “When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls.” Well, that might not be entirely true…

The Intercept has released more Snowden documents, revealing that the NSA developed a system to convert phone calls to written transcripts about a decade ago. Internal documents referred to it as “Google for Voice.” How widely the technology was used is unclear, and it’s unclear if it was ever used against domestic targets.

An Update on Presidential Candidates -- Last time, we examined the positions of the official 2016 candidates in regards to government mass surveillance, including Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio. There hasn’t been much movement from these politicians since, but a few important developments have come from others.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has officially thrown his hat into the ring. While the socialist senator has worse odds of winning the nomination than a pet rock, his anti-surveillance stance is strong. He has consistently voted against the Patriot Act and voted for the original USA Freedom Act.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson announced on 3 May 2015 that he’ll seek the Republican nomination for the presidency. While he has remained quiet lately about his thoughts on mass surveillance, he offered a balanced take on Edward Snowden in a Fox News segment, decrying his methods but saying, “It is absolutely important that we know what’s being done and what’s being monitored. The secrecy that’s going on right now, coupled with the apparent dishonesty in government, has obviously dampened the enthusiasm for people about the veracity of their government.”

Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, who has also thrown her hat into the Republican ring, doesn’t have a defined position on mass surveillance, though she did wonder how to hold the NSA accountable on NBC’s Meet the Press. She has worked with the CIA and NSA in the past. CNN said of Fiorina:

“She was very helpful to the NSA when she was head of Hewlett,” said Robert L. Deitz, a former NSA general counsel and former senior councillor to the director of the CIA. Deitz supports Fiorina’s presidential bid.

Also:

“I think Edward Snowden has been terribly destructive,” she told CNN, but added that agencies could be more transparent. “He has been less than forthcoming. It was a very slanted portrayal about what the NSA does, and he knows it.”

Mike Huckabee officially launched his campaign for the Republican nomination on 5 May 2015. As the former Arkansas governor is a Washington outsider, he doesn’t have a clear voting record to evaluate. In a segment on his Fox News show, Huckabee, though he remained neutral, appeared skeptical of mass surveillance, and asked some smart questions of his guests, two former NSA officials.

While not officially a candidate, Jeb Bush is planning to raise over $100 million in the first half of 2015, so we’ll assume he’s running for the Republican nomination too. He recently praised President Obama’s expansion of surveillance saying, “I would say the best part of the Obama administration would be his continuance of the protections of the homeland using the big metadata programs, the NSA being enhanced.” So you know where he stands.

With a number of candidates to evaluate now, I’ll take a crack at ranking them according to their opposition to mass surveillance. This is an admittedly subjective list, and the candidates’ positions could change at any time, but I’ll try to justify my reasoning:

  1. Bernie Sanders (a consistent opponent of the Patriot Act and he voted for the USA Freedom Act)

  2. Rand Paul (voted against the Patriot Act, joined a lawsuit against the Obama administration over mass surveillance, but voted against the USA Freedom Act)

  3. Ted Cruz (voted for the Patriot Act, but also for the USA Freedom Act)

  4. Ben Carson (record unclear, but has spoken out strongly against NSA mass surveillance)

  5. Mike Huckabee (record unclear, but appears skeptical of NSA mass surveillance)

  6. Hillary Clinton (consistent supporter of the Patriot Act, a critic of Edward Snowden, but has recently questioned mass surveillance)

  7. Carly Fiorina (position unclear, but she has close ties to intelligence agencies)

  8. Marco Rubio (voted for the Patriot Act, against the USA Freedom Act, and has spoken in favor of surveillance)

  9. Jeb Bush (has views similar to Rubio’s, and is also the brother of George W. Bush, whose administration kick started the NSA’s surveillance program)

Something for the Kids -- As I reported all the way back in the original “Keeping Up with the Snoops,” the NSA has been seeking to recruit college journalism majors and even high school students with attractive internships and work study programs. While those efforts are understandable, it turns out that the NSA is also trying to win the hearts of even young children.

PandoDaily’s Dan Raile visited the NSA booth at the RSA conference, and found that the NSA is distributing materials aimed at children, including NSA-branded Post-it Note kits and a coloring book called “America’s CryptoKids.”

In “America’s CryptoKids,” children can follow the adventures of T.Top (a turtle), Joules (a squirrel engineer), Decipher Dog (a signals intelligence analyst), and Crypto Cat (an information assurance analyst) as they crack codes, jam on guitars, and electrocute mice.

Why does the NSA want to reach kids young enough to like coloring books? Do other federal law enforcement agencies offer coloring books? I’m sure the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) coloring book would be interesting.

But pre-adolescents aren’t the only ones the government is trying to win over…

As I Walk Through the Valley in the Shadow of Snoops -- Washington is looking to expand its presence to the West Coast. The Department of Homeland Security is planning to open a satellite office in Silicon Valley to recruit tech workers and “strengthen critical relationships in Silicon Valley.”

The new office is a result of strained relationships between the tech industry and the government since the Snowden revelations. Companies such as Apple have worked to harden consumer encryption in their products, which has sparked government outrage. “Our inability to access encrypted information poses public safety challenges. In fact, encryption is making it harder for your government to find criminal activity, and potential terrorist activity,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a keynote at this year’s RSA conference on 21 April 2015.

Speaking of Jeh Johnson, Senator Rand Paul questioned him about mass surveillance in a Senate hearing on 29 April 2015. Paul asked, “Do you believe the government has the right to have bulk collection of records from millions of individuals without a warrant?” Johnson replied, “That is beyond my competence as the Secretary of Homeland Security to answer in any intelligent legal way.” Here’s the video.

Naturally, the U.S. government blames Edward Snowden for the increased tensions. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said, “The Snowden issue clouds things.” Author and blogger Cory Doctorow translated Carter’s statement as “Once they learn the truth, techies hate and fear us.”

Meanwhile, government pressure on tech firms, especially Apple, to weaken encryption is mounting. In written testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Massachusetts prosecutor Daniel Conley equated Apple’s iOS encryption to a tool for perverts, saying, “If the offender’s phone can’t be searched pursuant to a warrant, then the evidence won’t be recovered and this practice will become absolutely un-chargeable as a criminal offense,” in regards to men who take “upskirt” photos of women. Conley also questioned whether the Boston Marathon bombers would have been caught if they used encryption. There’s just one problem: Dzhokar Tsarnaev did encrypt his computer, but investigators cracked his password, “AllahuAkbar1”.

In his written testimony, Conley also said, “Apple and Google are using an unreasonable, hypothetical narrative of government intrusion as the rationale for the new encryption software…” I’m not sure whether he’s merely ignorant of the past two years, or if he is willfully choosing to ignore still-classified programs.

Conley’s testimony drew the ire of Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA), one of just four representatives with a computer science degree, who said:

It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. Why do you think Apple and Google are doing this? It’s because the public is demanding it. People like me: privacy advocates. A public does not want an out-of-control surveillance state. It is the public that is asking for this. Apple and Google didn’t do this because they thought they would make less money. This is a private sector response to government overreach.

Then you make another statement that somehow these companies are not credible because they collect private data. Here’s the difference: Apple and Google don’t have coercive power. District attorneys do, the FBI does, the NSA does, and to me it’s very simple to draw a privacy balance when it comes to law enforcement and privacy: just follow the damn Constitution.

And Justice for Some -- While Edward Snowden remains out of reach in Russia, another leaker has come before a federal court: retired four-star general David Petraeus.

Petraeus was commander of the United States Central Command from 2008 to 2010, commander of the International Security Assistance Force from 2010 to 2011, and then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2011 to 2012. During his military career, he became the highest profile commander of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Petraeus is also now a convicted criminal. He gave Paula Broadwell, his biographer and the woman with whom he was having an affair at the time, what the New York Times describes as “black notebooks that contained sensitive information about official meetings, war strategy and intelligence capabilities, as well as the names of covert officers.” Some of the books were described as “highly classified” by Petraeus. But despite that, he shared them with her while he was in charge of the CIA.

Is Petraeus now sitting in a jail cell like former CIA officer turned whistleblower Jeffery Sterling, who was just sentenced to three and a half years in prison? Is he hiding in Russia, living next door to Snowden? Or perhaps he’ll be serving 35 years in a military prison, like WikiLeaks informer Chelsea Manning, who also spent a full year in solitary confinement?

No. In a plea deal, Petraeus received only two years’ probation and a $100,000 fine.

Perhaps most damning are Petraeus’s own words, as the New York Times pointed out:

“Oaths do matter,” he said in October 2012 after a C.I.A. officer accepted a plea agreement for disclosing sensitive information, “and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy.”

The officer later received a 30-month sentence.

Until next time, encrypt your email, check your Citroën for bugs, and don’t even think about leaking classified documents unless you’re a four-star general.

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FunBITS: Google Takes You to Abbey Road

  by Geoff Duncan: geoff@tidbits.com

[For Geoff’s awesome music-enhanced audio version of this article, click the Listen link in the metadata line at the top of the article’s Web page. -Adam]

In music, the phrase “in the studio” has always carried a certain cachet with both performers and listeners, and perhaps no studio in the world is better known than Abbey Road Studios in London, opened in 1931 and famously where, in the 1960s, The Beatles and producer George Martin largely redefined popular music. Now, Google has devoted some of its engineering and Web expertise to create Inside Abbey Road, an online, interactive tour of Abbey Road Studios that enables users to virtually walk through the studio’s rooms, history, and technology — and check out famous recordings made there, from the classic albums of The Beatles and Pink Floyd to well-known movie soundtracks and the work of more-contemporary artists like Oasis, Florence and The Machine, and Sam Smith.

Virtual walk-throughs and guided tours aren’t new — after all, games have been doing essentially the same thing for decades. But Google has built Inside Abbey Road using only Web technologies available in modern browsers — HTML5, CSS, panoramic imaging, Web Audio, and WebGL — to handle navigation, high-resolution panoramas, ambient audio, seamlessly integrated video, and interactive gadgets. Even a few years ago, this project would have been unthinkable without Adobe Flash — and now it works on tablets and even phones, as well as traditional notebook and desktop computers.

Is Google’s effort worth your time? If you have any curiosity about how a world-class recording facility works — or just enjoy the tremendous range of artists that have recorded at Abbey Road over the years — then the answer is yes.

About Abbey Road -- The building where Abbey Road Studios is located was built in the 1830s as a large townhouse; eventually, it was converted to apartments (“flats,” in British English) and in 1931 the Gramophone Company bought the somewhat-dilapidated property and converted it to recording spaces. Abbey Road currently has three primary studios, aptly named Studio One, Studio Two, and Studio Three. In the 1930s the Gramophone Company (you might remember their “His Master’s Voice” label) was primarily concerned with recording classical music, so Studio One was designed to simultaneously handle a very large orchestra and a small audience, making it both a recording and performance space (an idea that’s more or less continuous in Abbey Road’s history, as we’ll see). Studio One can lay claim to being the world’s largest purpose-built recording studio: while plenty of recordings get made in larger places, those were typically built as concert halls, chapels, and theaters, not dedicated recording facilities. If you’re a Reader of a Certain Age, you’ve seen Studio One: The Beatles’s portion of the 1967 “Our World” live satellite program (featuring “All You Need is Love”) was broadcast from Studio One and viewed live by over 400 million people.


The smaller Studio Two (and, to a lesser extent, Studio Three) are at the heart of British rock and pop music, with Abbey Road rock-and-roll first getting on the charts with Cliff Richard in the late 1950s and truly emerging with The Beatles, who recorded almost all their albums in Studio Two with producer George Martin. I use the word “smaller” in a relative sense: I’ve worked in recording studios since my teens, and few are as large as Abbey Road’s Studio Two or Studio Three.

As a physical room, Studio Two is much the same as when The Beatles recorded there, complete with tall wheeled baffles used to change the shape of the space, and the deliberately-out-of-tune tack piano, named for the once popular but now mostly forgotten sing-along performer Gladys Mills. You’ve probably heard it: Paul McCartney used the piano on “Lady Madonna” and other Beatles tracks.


Studio Three — where Pink Floyd famously didn’t recognize former frontman Syd Barrett while recording “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” — has been updated to a more contemporary space, complete with Abbey Road’s famous mirrored drum room straight out of the 1980s. (One way to make drums sound bigger is to record them in a very “live” room where almost every surface reflects sound.)


Google’s tour of Abbey Road also highlights a mastering suite, where recordings are equalized, processed, and prepared for distribution, whether that’s directly to digital services or cutting on a vinyl lathe. Yes, Abbey Road will still make proper “records” if clients ask — and one of the studio’s neatest artifacts is a stereo cutting head developed by Alan Blumlein in the 1930s, decades before stereo become a standard for phonograph recordings. It still works.

Getting Around -- If you’ve used Google Street View, you can navigate Google’s tour of Abbey Road. Users can get a real sense of the studios’ physical space, go up and down Studio Two’s famous stairs, and explore the corners; plus, audio geeks can zoom in on racks of equipment to read all the labels. (For fun, find all the silver Mac Pro towers — they’re visible in every control room.) Google says the site is best experienced with headphones, and that’s because they really want you to notice the ambient noises: for instance, as you walk past the large isolation booth off Studio One, the sound of a harpist warming up in there shifts from left to right (and even forward and back) as you pan around. It’s legitimately fun.

Every location on the tour is festooned with hotspots linking to more-detailed information or to videos and pictures of the tremendous variety of artists associated with Abbey Road. Some highlights include Abbey Road’s echo chamber (it’s a real room, not an electronic effect!), details of the studio’s prized microphone collection, and features on film scoring, the role of producers, and even Studio One’s squeakless chairs for orchestra players. Most of the video is direct from YouTube or Vevo.


However, perhaps the most accessible features are three guided tours, voiced by producer Giles Martin (who happens to be George Martin’s son), Abbey Road’s head of audio products Mirek Stiles, and Lauren Laverne, perhaps best known as a host (“presenter” in Britain) on BBC Radio 6 Music. Each tour covers a different portion of Abbey Road, with Martin covering the recording process, Stiles discussing some of the technology and notable work at Abbey Road, and Laverne highlighting personalities and behind-the-scenes moments.

The tours are self-paced (so you can look around as much as you like anywhere along the way), and reflect the sound of each space. Google and Abbey Road cheated a bit here: each host was recorded separately, then the recordings played back on a speaker in each room to capture a bit of each space’s sound. It’s a common technique: Abbey Road did the same thing to re-record Colin Firth’s voice through their EMI PM 201 dynamic mic for the film “The King’s Speech,” as it’s the same microphone King George VI used when declaring war on Germany in 1939.


The site also offers a handful of “gadgets” that enable visitors to try their hand at mixing audio tracks, creating old-school tape effects, and mixing down four-track recordings — just like The Beatles had to do! Another gadget offers panoramas of microphones so rare and costly most people will never see them any other way.

Let me spill a little bit of TidBITS history here: while I essentially grew up doing music and audio, Adam and Tonya have little musical background — other than truly enjoying music. Ages ago, a few of us went to Seattle’s EMP Museum, which features interactive exhibits where visitors with no musical experience can try their hand with real instruments, mixing boards, and even turntables. (For the record: Tonya was rocking the bass line to “Wild Thing” in about a minute, but Adam made for a hopeless drummer.) The EMP experience highlighted for me how difficult it is to make this stuff accessible for everyday folks. It wasn’t just Adam and Tonya who didn’t become instant rock stars: almost everybody was struggling.

So, I had very low expectations for the Inside Abbey Road gadgets, but I was pleasantly surprised. While they aren’t particularly intuitive, they do capture and illustrate the key concepts, and the gadget emulating a J37 four-track tape recorder is just a ton of fun, even if it’s a skill that literally no one needs anymore. My only objection is that the gadgets are a bit game-ified: users can compare their results to a preset goal, which might discourage folks with no experience, since their first scores are probably going to be abysmal. I’m also impressed Google was able to pull this off without resorting to Flash or other browser plug-ins. Web audio has come a long way.

What’s Not To Like? -- The way Google presents the Inside Abbey Road project is a bit weird. Some of the technology ideas come from the Google Cultural Institute, which attempts to make significant cultural institutions, historical events, and natural wonders virtually accessible to anyone in the world with a decent Internet connection. And, given the resemblance, one might think the Inside Abbey Road site was akin to Google’s virtual tours of Pompeii, the Bolshoi Theater, or South Africa’s Robben Island.

It’s not. Although the British government recently made Abbey Road Studios a listed site (along with its famous crosswalk — that’s a “zebra crossing” in the UK), Abbey Road Studios is not a non-profit cultural institution. Abbey Road is a high-profile commercial operation, now owned by Universal Music Group, in a highly competitive industry. Google’s Inside Abbey Road essentially amounts to a huge, highly interactive advertisement for Abbey Road Studios, Universal, and many of the artists associated with them, and it sure doesn’t take long to be presented with links to buy music via Google Play. (But not The Beatles! They’re still an iTunes exclusive.) There are hundreds, if not thousands, of recording studios around the world who’d love this kind of exposure.

And Abbey Road very much wants to promote itself. Although its doors have been open over 80 years, Abbey Road’s survival has never been guaranteed. For instance, despite being purpose-built, Studio One wasn’t tremendously well regarded for classical music: its reverb time was pretty short, leading Abbey Road to experiment somewhat desperately with “ambiophany” — using about 100 loudspeakers to augment the studio’s reverb. That didn’t really work out, and as the market for classical music waned Abbey Road considered dividing Studio One into smaller spaces. They were able to save Studio One through a smart (and inexpensive!) acoustic re-treatment by renowned engineer Ken Townsend, and eventually developed a business recording film and game soundtracks.

The digital music revolution — and associated decline in record company revenues — created lean times for most recording studios, including Abbey Road. Even back in the day, knowledge and a little bit of luck could create world-class recordings without a world-class studio. (For instance, Joe Meek’s work — like the 1959 space-skiffle album “I Hear a New World” — may have been as influential as anything from Abbey Road, but much of it was produced in his flat maybe a mile away.) These days it’s more common to record an album on a laptop in a bedroom than shell out for studio time. And London ain’t cheap: only a few years ago there was serious concern Abbey Road would be torn down and replaced with condominiums, thanks to the financial troubles of then-owner EMI.

Abbey Road has long been reinforcing the notion that it is itself a brand and cultural institution. Remember when I said the three main studios are both recording and performance spaces? Some of what you don’t see in Google’s tour are the studio’s in-house restaurant, bar, and garden for handling private events. (Google’s tour also omits two smaller studios primarily used for mixing.) Also consider “Live from Abbey Road,” a television show that ran for five seasons (“series,” in British parlance) featuring live, HD performances from Studios One, Two, and Three. Those sorts of live events and filmed sessions are now a big part of Abbey Road’s business. The studio — and its owners — would love to see playing Abbey Road become as prestigious as playing iconic venues like the Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall, or the Grand Ole Opry… except the performers, not the audiences, would pay to attend.

Does any of this detract from the Inside Abbey Road site? A bit, but if you’ve any interest in how music is made or the countless artists, engineers, and producers whose creative energy has probably touched us all, don’t let it deter you. Abbey Road will probably still be around in a few years, but who knows if this site will be? The Web moves quickly, and — unlike Abbey Road — the Web has little regard for its own history.

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TidBITS Watchlist: Notable Software Updates for 11 May 2015

  by TidBITS Staff: editors@tidbits.com

Fantastical 2.0.4 -- Flexibits has issued Fantastical 2.0.4 with a number of handy additions for the popular calendar app. The update adds a pending invitations section that enables you to view all incoming invitations, a new appearance for birthday events, the capability to Option-drag an event so that it repeats on multiple days at the same time (available in Week view), and support for dragging items from OmniFocus to create an event. Version 2.0.4 also enables you to modify the default snooze duration, copy multiple invitees in the event details, dismiss all alert notifications by Option-clicking on a single notification, and disable alerts for calendars that aren’t editable. Fantastical 2 has a 14-day free trial, and currently costs $39.99 from either the Flexibits Store or the Mac App Store; the price will go up to $49.99 after an introductory discount period. ($39.99 new, free update, 12.8 MB, release notes, 10.10+)

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ChronoSync 4.6.1 and ChronoAgent 1.5.2 -- Econ Technologies has released ChronoSync 4.6.1 and ChronoAgent 1.5.2, both of which receive support for package merging. This new feature will help keep ChronoSync from copying entire packages (such as a Photos library) if only minor changes occurred within the package. After comparing the contents of a package file on a destination, ChronoSync will copy only those components that have actually changed while using hard links to reconstruct the rest on the destination. The synchronization and backup app also implements enhanced progress reporting statistics, optimizes retrieving and setting of File Info data, fixes a bug where changing ownership on a folder could fail, improves efficiency of bootable backup/mirror sync operations, and fixes a hang that could occur when refreshing the displayed contents of the Analyze Panel. (Free updates for both apps; $49.99 new for ChronoSync with a 20 percent discount for TidBITS members, 28.4 MB, release notes, 10.8+; $14.99 new for ChronoAgent, 10.3 MB, release notes, 10.8+)

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Downcast 1.1.10 -- Jamawkinaw Enterprises has released Downcast 1.1.10 with added settings for episode start/finish times that enable you to skip intro and outro sections of a podcast. The podcatcher app also adds a button for opening 1Password to access credentials for protected podcasts, patches a bug that prevented Downcast from running in OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, resolves issues with ID3 chapter extraction, and fixes user interface glitches in 10.8 Mountain Lion and 10.9 Mavericks. Downcast is currently on sale for $5.99 from the Mac App Store for an unspecified length of time. ($9.99 new from the Mac App Store, free update, 20.9 MB, release notes, 10.8+)

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Safari 8.0.6, 7.1.6, and 6.2.6 -- Apple has released Safari 8.0.6 for OS X 10.10 Yosemite, along with Safari 7.1.6 for 10.9 Mavericks and Safari 6.2.6 for 10.8 Mountain Lion, with all three receiving WebKit-related security fixes. The updates resolve multiple memory corruption issues within WebKit that could lead to a malicious Web site executing arbitrary code, patch an opening in WebKit’s history file system that could compromise user information, and fix a problem with WebKit page loading that could lead to user interface spoofing. All three versions of Safari are available only via Software Update. (Free)

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ExtraBITS for 11 May 2015

  by TidBITS Staff: editors@tidbits.com

In this week’s ExtraBITS collection, the developers of MacKeeper could owe its users big money, we get some hard numbers regarding the Mac App Store’s stagnation, a developer vents about Apple’s networking code, and Apple confirms third-party Apple Watch bands.

MacKeeper Owner ZeoBIT Could Owe Users $2 Million -- Under proposed settlement terms for a 2014 class-action lawsuit against MacKeeper creator ZeoBIT, the company could owe customers $2 million in refunds. ZeoBIT has been accused of unscrupulous marketing, with system tests that flag nonexistent problems. Austrian firm AV Comparatives tested the latest trial version of MacKeeper on a fresh install of OS X 10.10 Yosemite, and the software warned that the computer’s condition was “serious,” citing 500 MB of “junk” files.

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The Sad State of the Mac App Store -- It’s no secret among the Mac cognoscenti that the Mac App Store hasn’t lived up to its promise, but developer Sam Soffes has revealed just how bad the problem is. On 6 May 2015, he launched a new app, Redacted for Mac, that quickly shot to the 8th spot on the U.S. Top Paid list. But the app wasn’t as successful as you might think: on the first day, it sold only 94 copies, for a total of $452.

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Apple’s Networking Kerfuffle -- Many Apple users have been experiencing networking problems, and developer Craig Hockenberry explains the cause in a profanity-laced tirade. The discoveryd service, introduced in OS X 10.10 Yosemite and iOS 8, is the root of the problems. Unfortunately, the more Apple devices you have on a network, the more likely it is that you will suffer these networking problems. So far, the only fix seems to be to reboot all of your Apple devices. If you have both an AirPort router and an Apple TV, you should turn off the Apple TV, reboot the router, and then turn the Apple TV back on.

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Apple Confirms Third-Party Apple Watch Bands -- Apple has confirmed that it will offer a Made for Apple Watch program that will enable other companies to produce approved Apple Watch bands. While it remains to be seen what band creators will do, one thing is certain: approved bands will not charge the Apple Watch, at least not through magnetic charging. The Band Design Guidelines for Apple Watch document clearly states, “Bands must not integrate magnetic chargers.”

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