Previous “Apple” posts

Algorithm Accountability 

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019

The recent word is that Apple’s new credit card has been providing women with substantially lower credit limits than men. Once a single viral Twitter thread raised this issue, breathless “Apple is sexist!” pieces quickly popped up across the web. With precious little data, however, it’s not yet clear if this specific concern is even valid.

The problem, however, is that it could be true, and it wouldn’t even require malicious intent. A credit card issuer could be “sexist” (or “racist”, or biased in countless other ways), without even intending to be. This is the result of a much broader issue, namely the black box nature of how too much of society now operates.

In the past decade or two, secret, unaccountable algorithms have taken control of far too many decisions which impact our lives. Mathematician and writer Cathy O’Neil discussed this broader problem with Slate, in a piece well worth reading. Perhaps a story about the failures of Apple (and Goldman Sachs) is how we push things forward to better transparency when utilizing algorithms. Here’s hoping.

Bad at Rounding and Writing

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

After posting yet another tale of my Apple Dumbwatch on October 7th, I heard from several readers who correctly guessed that my screenshot might be from earlier in the month. In fact, I’d actually taken it on October 4th. Given that, it appeared that the Activity app might actually be doing live or live-ish updates to the required per-day average. Did that explain the seemingly bad math? It turns out the answer is yes, but it also exposes several other issues. Let’s have a look.

First, I looked back at a screenshot from earlier in the day on October 4th. This was snapped at 4:02 PM:

Challenge stating 'Earn this award with 2560 Exercise minutes - that's about 79 minutes a day'.

As you can see, this says “about 79”. I had 2,236 minutes left to obtain, and 28 days (counting the 4th) remaining. How does that math check out?

2,236 minutes remaining/28 days remaining = 79.86 minutes/day

Now, 79.86 minutes per day is sort of close to “about 79”, but it really ought to be “about 80”. Also, remember that at 4 PM, the 4th is already 2/3 over.

My original image was from 10:37 PM of that same day, October 4th. Here it is again:

Challenge stating 'Earn this award with 2560 Exercise minutes - that's about 79 minutes a day'.

As you can see, I’d done some more Exercise minutes since 4 PM. I now had 2,214 minutes left to obtain, and 28 days (again, counting the 4th) remaining. The math on this actually works out to just over 79 minutes:

2,214 minutes remaining/28 days remaining = 79.07 minutes/day

That certainly is close to 79, though again, if you do 79 minutes a day, you’ll come up short. Worse, at this point the 4th was nearly over, yet it was still being counted in the averaging. That seems like a problem.

Finally, I did a check on the 7th, at 11 AM. Here, you can see that the estimate has gone up, as I’ve fallen slightly off the pace:

Challenge stating 'Earn this award with 2560 Exercise minutes - that's about 79 minutes a day'.

One more time, let’s check that math.

2,107 minutes remaining/25 days remaining = 84.28 minutes/day

As before, this is close enough to “about 84” for Apple’s purposes, at least. Clearly, Activity is doing live tracking as the month progresses, rather than just doing one calculation (2560 minutes /31 days = 82.58 minutes/day)). That’s a nice idea, but there are several obvious problems here. Specifically:

  • The current text fails to indicate that the estimate provided is for the remainder of the month. Something like this could be an improvement:

    “Get 2560 Exercise minutes this month to earn this award. You’ve earned 453 minutes so far, so you just have 2,107 left to go. That’s about 84 Exercise minutes a day, for the rest of the month.”

    That would make it much more obvious that this estimate is for the rest of the month.

  • Activity is counting the current day in its averaging, no matter when in the day you are. Surely at 10:37 PM, or worse, 11:59 PM, the current day should not be counted fully in the averaging.

  • Finally, anything over X minutes should be rounded up to X+1 minutes, to avoid ever coming up short. So, 79.8, and even 79.1, should become “about 80”.

It seems I was incorrect in maligning the Apple Watch’s math skills. However, its rounding skills could definitely do with some improvement, as well as its copyediting.

Return of the Apple Dumbwatch Part II

Monday, October 7th, 2019

As long-time readers and/or Apple Watch users know, the Apple Watch encourages wearers to be more active by issuing monthly activity challenges. While these challenges can be motivating, I’ve repeatedly found the Apple Watch to be bad at the math required to track them. I first noted this in November of 2017, and then saw it again in February of 2018.

It’s been 18 months since I last noticed such an issue, however, so I assumed that the problems had been fixed and the math was being correctly computed. Yet, like the living dead, these bugs just won’t stay down. Here is my October challenge:

Challenge stating 'Earn this award with 2560 Exercise minutes - that's about 79 minutes a day'.

This challenge calls for 2560 Exercise minutes in the month of October, and then states that that’s about 79 minutes a day. I found the use of the word “about” alongside a not-at-all-round number like 79 to be rather strange. I guessed that meant I’d need a bit more than 78 minutes a day, and checked the math.

Challenge stating 'Earn this award with 2560 Exercise minutes - that's about 79 minutes a day'.

In what universe is more than 82 and 1/2 “about 79”? If the claim was “about 80”, that would still be rather wrong. Even “about 82” would be problematic, because it would leave you 18 minutes short of the goal at the end of October. But “about 79”? I can only conclude that the Apple Watch has fallen right off the wagon again.

More on Siri and Numerical Days of the Year

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

When writing about Siri and the Kilomile last week, I noted some strange and useless responses the virtual assistant provided when trying to determine what numerical day of the year it was. Shortly thereafter, I received multiple replies from folks who noted that at least my last query (“How many days until 2020?”) worked for them. I don’t know what changed on the Siri side since my first tests, but this does indeed work for me as well:

Answer: It's two hundred thirty one days until then.

With this answer, we’re at least getting somewhere in the quest to determine what numerical day of the year it is. If we take 365 days and subtract that answer of 231, we get 134. Today (May 15th, 2019) is actually the 135th day of the year, so perhaps Siri isn’t counting today in this. We have to add 1 at the end (or subtract from 366), but we can at least use this to work out the answer we want.

Having finally gotten something useful from Siri, I set out to see if there was an easier method. First, I again tested the real head scratcher from my first post. Regardless of the day of the year, when asked “How many days are left in this year?”, Siri thinks there are three hundred sixty-four days left. That issue persists:

Answer: It's three hundred sixty-four days.

Experimenting further revealed additional problems. I got another weird reply when I asked “How many days into 2019 are we?”:

Answer: It's two hundred thirty days until then.

This phrasing seems to indicate Siri is still living in 2018. On a hunch, I then asked “How many days from 2020 are we?”, and got this:

Answer: It's three hundred sixty-four days.

A quick check reveals that this was the exact number of days from 2020 on May 15th, 2018. Why is Siri living in the past? What sort of off-by-one error have we hit?

Eventually, however, I figured out the exact right question to ask. Reader Michael L. put me on the right path, suggesting “How many days since the first of the year?”

Answer: It was one hundred thirty-four days ago.

This is very close, and doesn’t require subtracting from 365. Still, it’s off by one day, requiring us to remember to add one. What if we instead ask “How many days since December 31st, 2018?”:

Answer: It was one hundred thirty-five days ago.

Success! This gives us today’s numerical day, with no additional math required.

It’s good to know that Siri is indeed capable of doing calendar math. Now the trick is remembering how exactly to ask this question to avoid multiple different weird or wrong answers.

Siri and the Kilomile

Friday, May 10th, 2019

When I first took up serious distance running in 2001, I also began a log of each of my runs. I first measured my routes ahead of time by driving them with a car, and later with tools like MilerMeter (formerly GMap-Pedometer). Much more recently, the Apple Watch’s GPS has made it especially easy to know how far I’ve run, with no manual measuring required. At some point in the past few years, I also created an ongoing tally of my lifetime distance run.1

Obviously, I’m a nerd for running data. So I was amused when I learned about the distinctly non-metric measurement called the “kilomile”. A kilomile is simply a thousand miles, and while I’ve run almost seven of those in my adult life, friend-of-the-site Kelan C. managed an entire kilomile in just the year of 2018 alone.

Reviewing my running logs, which of course include annual totals, I saw that I had just missed a kilomile in the year 2017. That year I ran 980.4 miles, and if I’d known how close I was, I’d certainly have gotten off my ass a few more times in December. In 2019, I decided I’d conquer this goofy goal.

Once I began this effort, I soon found myself repeatedly checking my progress. To do that, I just need to know what number day of the year it is, then multiple that by the ~2.74 miles2 I need to average each day. That tells me what my total distance so far should be. For example, if I’ve run at least 27.4 miles by January 10th, I’m on or ahead of pace. Simple.

But why keep things simple, when one can instead make an overly-involved spreadsheet? I wanted to see more exact numbers, and also avoid repeating the same calculations constantly. Here’s a quick look at what I came up with:


I’m slightly behind schedule, but I remain confident.

The biggest issue with this is that we don’t generally know what number day of the year it is. Thankfully, that’s where computers can help. Calendar math is the foundation of lots of computer code, and it’s simple for machines to do. A Google search will get you to a site like EpochConverter which tells you that May 10th is the 130th day of the year. And surely my helpful virtual assistant Siri can tell me as well, right?

Long-time readers likely already know the answer to the above question. Some of the most popular posts on this site have covered the failings of Apple’s virtual assistant. From callousness, to over-promising and under-delivering, to outright sexism, Siri has had its issues.3

And yet, for some reason, I continue to try to make Siri work for me. It has improved over time, and because it’s always being updated, hope springs eternal. Maybe it shouldn’t though. Please enjoy this a story of futility in three images.

A Story of Futility in Three Images

First I asked Siri “What day of the year is it?”:

Answer: It's Monday, May 6, 2019

OK, that’s accurate enough, even if it’s not what I was after.

Next, I tried to get what I was after by some basic math, by asking “How many days are left in this year?”:

Answer: It's three hundred sixty-four days

I…uh…what?! This answer could only make sense in very early January, yet it seems to be the standard response to this question, no matter when it’s asked. Try it yourself.

Finally, I tried asking a very specific question: “How many days until 2020?”:

Answer: It's three hundred sixty-four days

Can’t, or won’t, Siri?

Compared to some of the previous failings I’ve noted, this one is somewhat obscure. Still, that second answer really got to me. Siri ought to be able to do this basic calendar math, but if it can’t, it certainly shouldn’t provide that kind of nonsense.

Update (May 15th, 2019): Don’t miss the follow-up post, “More on Siri and Numerical Days of the Year”.


Footnotes:

  1. 6,954.61 miles and counting! ↩︎

  2. That’s 1000 miles / 365 days, to get exactly 2.739726027 miles per day. I’m comfortable rounding up, because 0.000273973 miles is about a foot and a half.↩︎

  3. Early on, I referred Siri with feminine pronouns, as it had only one female voice. More recently, I’ve taken to calling Siri “it”, both because it has male and female voices, and because it of course doesn’t actually have a gender. ↩︎

Lousy Emoji Suggestions

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

Since 2016’s release iOS 10, the Messages app on the iPhone has been able to make suggestions to replace text with emoji.


Emoji suggestions for “Happy”, “Sad”, and “Dog”

These are all perfectly cromulent suggestions, and this is a vaguely useful feature, or at least a vaguely enjoyable one. However, I recently noticed that iOS was giving some very flawed suggestions. It started, as these things so often do, with the word “squirrel”.

When typing the word “squirrel”, iOS suggests this:

Upon spotting this, I initially thought “that’s not a squirrel, it’s a chipmunk”. And indeed, a bit of research showed me that the official Unicode 7.0 spec lists the character in question (U+1F43F) as “CHIPMUNK”. Despite that fact, iOS is treating it as interchangeable with the word “squirrel”, which seems flat-out wrong.

Now you can call me old-fashioned, but before leaning in to my outrage, I wanted to be sure of my facts. While the tremendously common Eastern gray squirrel is monochromatic, I had to consider the possibility that some squirrels may indeed have stripes. It turns out that’s the case, and there are indeed ground squirrels that have stripes. Here’s a comparison provided by NatureMapping:

At a glance, it seems obvious that the chipmunk emoji could also substitute for the golden-mantled ground squirrel. However! The aforelinked page informs us that while chipmunks and ground squirrels are both striped, ground squirrels “look similar to chipmunks, but do not have stripes on the head”. Let’s take a closer look at the 🐿️ emoji in question. Enhance:

Enhance…

Enhance!

Oo, that’s a bingo! We’ve got head stripes, which means that’s a chipmunk, not a squirrel. Come on, Apple. Until we get a proper squirrel emoji, you simply need to not suggest any replacement for that word.

When I first spotted this, I thought it was just an amusing one-off. However, it wasn’t long before I saw another problem. While typing the word “sluggish”, I got this suggestion:

OK, come on! Even at the tiniest size, it’s clear that that is a snail, with a massive shell. That’s the biggest difference between a slug and a snail! Here’s the very first paragraph from the Wikipedia entry for slug:

Slug, or land slug, is a common name for any apparently shell-less terrestrial gastropod mollusc. The word slug is also often used as part of the common name of any gastropod mollusc that has no shell, a very reduced shell, or only a small internal shell, particularly sea slugs and semislugs (this is in contrast to the common name snail, which applies to gastropods that have a coiled shell large enough that the animal can fully retract its soft parts into the shell).

That makes at least two cases where Apple’s emoji suggest feature is missing the mark. The emoji set is of course incomplete, and always will be. But as it gets larger and more specific, it becomes ever more ridiculous to suggest we substitute in entirely different animals. We all look like idiots here, Apple.

Still, at least we don’t look as ridiculous as this emoji snail. Snails are weird, man.

I’d Love to Read the Internal Bug Report for This One 

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

Good news, everyone! In the latest iOS 12.1 betas, Apple has updated the bagel emoji. Last week’s version was monstrously bad. It has now been upgraded to merely “very bad”.

Californians Don’t Know From Bagels 

Friday, October 12th, 2018

Yesterday’s post featured a quality real-world baked reproduction of a logo. Today, we have a terrible digital representation of a baked good. Shield the eyes of your children from the worst image I’ve posted since Gritty.

Apple's awful bagel emoji

Grubstreet has dissected this image, and they’re correct that it looks like a lousy machine-cut monstrosity. But like a duck/rabbit optical illusion, when I look at this, I can also see one whole bagel on top of half of a much larger bagel. No matter what, it’s all awful.

Siri Finally Understands “Gazpacho”

Wednesday, August 1st, 2018

Over six years ago, I wrote about the iPhone’s hilarious inability to replicate Apple’s commercial touting Siri’s functionality. Ever since, I’ve occasionally tested against the Samuel L. Jackson-inspired phrase, “Remind me to put the gazpacho on ice in an hour”. As far as I can recall, it’s never worked.

That all changed yesterday, when I ran the test again:

Finally.

An Apple Watch Makes a Great Gift for the Nerdy Cokehead in Your Life 

Monday, July 16th, 2018

I suppose using a smartwatch or other gadget to monitor the results of your drug usage does meet the literal definition of “activity tracking”.