Explaining YouTube’s VERY Cool New Aspect Ratio Changes

YouTube very quietly made a very cool and rather major improvement in their desktop video players today. I noticed it immediately this morning and now have confirmation both from testing with my own YT videos (for which I know all the native metadata) and via informal statements from Google.

YouTube is now adjusting the YT player size to match videos’ native aspect ratios. This is a big deal, and very much welcome.

Despite the fact that I’m publicly critical from time to time regarding various elements of YouTube content-related policies, this does not detract from the fact that I’m one of YT’s biggest fans. I spend a lot of time in YT, and I consider it to be a news, information, education, and entertainment wonder of the world. Its scale is staggering large — so we can’t reasonably expect perfection — and frankly I don’t even want to think about life without YT.

Excuse me while I put on my video engineering hat for a moment …

One of the more complicated facets of video — played out continuously on YouTube — is aspect ratios. A modern high definition TV (HDTV) video is normally displayed at a 16 (horizontal) by 9 (vertical) aspect ratio – significantly wider than high. The older standard definition TV ratio is 4:3 — just a bit wider than high, and visually very close to the traditional 35mm film aspect ratio of 3:2.

When displaying video, the typical techniques to display different aspect ratios on different fixed ratio display systems have been to either modify the actual contents of the visible video frames themselves, or to fit more of the original frames into the display area by reducing their overall relative sizes and providing “fillers” for any remaining areas of the display. 

The “modification of contents” technique usually has the worst results. Techniques such as “pan and scan” were traditionally used to show only portions of widescreen movie frames on standard 4:3 TVs, simply cutting off much of the action. Ugh. 

But eventually, especially as 4:3 television screens became larger in many homes, the much superior “letterboxing” technique came into play, displaying black bars on the top and bottom of the screen to permit the entire (or at least most) of widescreen film frames to be displayed on a 4:3 cathode ray tube. In the early days of this process, it was common to see squiggles and such in those bars — networks and local stations were concerned that viewers would assume that something was wrong with their televisions if empty black bars were present without some sort of explanations — and sometimes broadcasters would even provide such explanations at the start of the film — sometimes they still do even with HDTV! Very widescreen films shown on 16:9 displays today may still use letterboxing to permit viewing more of the frame that would otherwise exceed the 16:9 ratio.

When 16:9 HDTV arrived, the opposite of the standard definition TV problem appeared. Now to properly display a traditional 4:3 standard TV image, you needed to put black bars on the right and left side of the screen — “pillarboxing” is the name usually given to this technique, and it’s widely used on many broadcast, satellite, streaming, and other video channels. It is in fact by far the preferred technique to display 4:3 content on a fixed aspect ratio 16:9 physical display.

After YouTube switched from a 4:3 video player to their standard 16:9 player years ago, you started seeing some YT uploaders zooming in on 4:3 videos to make them “fake” 16:9 videos before uploading, to fill the 16:9 player — resulting in grainy and noisy images, with significant portions of the original video chopped off. The same thing is done by some TV broadcasters and other video channels, documentary creators, and others who have this uncontrollable urge to fill the entire screen, no matter what! These drive me nuts.

Up until today, YouTube handled the display of native 4:3 videos by using the pillarbox technique within their 16:9 player. Completely reasonable, but of necessity wasting significant areas of the screen taken up by the black pillarbox bars.

This all changed this morning. The YouTube player now adapts to the native aspect ratio of the video being played, instead of always being a fixed 16:9. This means for example that a native 4:3 video now displays in a 4:3 player, with no pillarboxing required — and with significant viewable screen real estate recovered to actually display video rather than pillarboxing bars. In effect, these videos today are displaying similarly to how they would have in the early days of YT — fully filling the video display area — as had been the case before YT switched to fixed aspect ratio 16:9 players. Excellent! 

The same goes for other aspect ratios, in particular such as 16:9 used by most more recent videos, so 16:9 videos will continue to display in a 16:9 player.

One aspect (no pun intended) to keep in mind. The player will apparently adapt to the native video resolution as uploaded. So if a video was uploaded as 4:3, you’ll get a 4:3 player. But if (for example) a 4:3 video was already converted to 16:9 by pillarboxing before being uploaded, YouTube’s encoding pipeline is going to consider this to be a native 16:9 video and display it in a 16:9 player with the black bar pillars intact. Bottom line: If you have 4:3 material to upload, don’t change its aspect ratio, just upload it as native 4:3, pretty please!

Since I watch a fair bit of older videos on YouTube that tend to be in 4:3 aspect ratio, the changes YT made today are great for me. But having the YT player adjust to various native aspect ratios is going to be super for all YT users in the long run. It may take a little time for you to adapt to seeing the player size and shape vary from video to video, but you’ll get used to it. And trust me, you’ll come to love it.

Great work by YouTube. My thanks to the entire YouTube team!


Uber and Lyft Must Immediately Ban “Peeping Tom” Drivers

In response to a news story revealing that an Uber driver has been (usually surreptitiously) live streaming video and most audio of his passengers without their knowledge or explicit consent — exposing them to ridicule and potentially much worse by his streaming audience, both Uber and Lyft have reportedly simply argued that the practice is legal in that particular (one-party recording permission) state. 

That kind of response is of course absolutely unacceptable and below reproach, demonstrating the utter lack of ethics of these ride sharing firms. They argue that this doesn’t even violate any of their driver terms.

That needs to change — IMMEDIATELY!

Drive sharing firms must ban their drivers from such behavior, and violators should be immediately excised from the platform.

That a vile behavior is legal does not mean that these firms — entrusted with the lives of millions of passengers — must permit drivers to engage in such activities. In fact, these firms already lay out specific “don’t do this!” rules that can prohibit a variety of legal activities by drivers — for the protection of their riders.

If these firms do not act immediately to end such practices by their drivers, they risk not only massive loss of rider trust, but are just begging for this kind of activity to eventually result in a horrific incident involving their passengers — perhaps physical abuse because identity information often leaks on these streams — at the hands of unscrupulous members of the live stream viewing public.

If these firms refuse to ban these practices, their rights to operate in any states where such behavior continues to occur must be withdrawn, and if necessary, legislation passed to force these firms to do the right thing and protect their riders from such abuses.


EU’s Latest Massive Fine Against Google Will Hurt Europeans Most of All

Have you ever heard anyone seriously say: “Man, there just aren’t enough shopping choices on the Net!” or, “I’d really like my smartphone to be more complicated and less secure!” or … well, you get the idea — nobody actually means stuff like that.

But sadly, this means nothing to the politicians and bureaucrats of the European Union, who are constantly trying to enrich themselves with massive fines against firms like Google, while simultaneously making Internet life ever more “mommy state” government micromanaged for Europeans.

The latest giant fine (which Google quite righteously will appeal) announced by the EU extortion machine is five billion dollars, for claimed offenses by Google related to the Android operating system, all actually aspects of Android that are designed to help users and to provide a secure and thriving foundation for a wide range of applications and user choice.

In fact, in the final analysis, the changes in Android that the EU is demanding would result in much more complicated phones, less secure phones, and ultimately LESS choice for users resulting from alterations that will make life much more difficult (and expensive!) for application developers and users alike.

Why do the EU politicos keep behaving as if they want to destroy the Internet?

It’s because in significant ways that exactly what they have in mind. They don’t like an Internet that the government doesn’t tightly control, where they don’t dictate all aspects of how consumers interact with the Net and what these users are permitted to see and do. Even now, they’re still pushing horrific legislation to create a Chinese-style firewall to vastly limit what kind of content Europeans can upload to the Net, and to destroy businesses that depend on free inbound linking. And these hypocritical EU officials are desperately trying to prop up failing businesses whose business models are stuck in the 20th (or even 19th) centuries, while passing all the costs on to ordinary Europeans — who by and large seem to be quite happy with how the Internet is already working.

And of course, there’s the money. Need more money? Hell, the EU always needs more money. Gin up another set of fake violations against Google, then show up in Mountain View with sticky fingers extended for another multi-billion dollar check!

The EU has become a bigger threat to the Internet than even China or Russia, neither of which has attempted (so far) to extend globally their highly restrictive views of Internet freedoms. 

And the saddest part is that these kinds of abuses by the EU are hurting EU consumers most of all. Over time, fewer and fewer Internet firms will even want to deal with this kind of EU, and Europeans will find their actual choices more and more limited and government controlled as a result.

That’s a terrible shame for Europe — and for the entire world.


Network Solutions and Cloudflare Supporting Horrific Racist Site

Today a concerned reader brought to my attention a horrifically racist site — apparently operating for a decade and currently registered via Network Solutions (NSI) — with DNS and other services through Cloudflare — called “n*ggermania.com” (and “n*ggermania.net”) — I have purposely not linked to them here, and you know why I have the asterisks there.

To call the site — complete with a discussion forum — a massive pile of horrific, dangerous, racist garbage of the worst kind would be treating it far too gently.

We already know that Cloudflare reportedly has an ethical sense that makes diseased maggots and cockroaches seem warm and friendly by comparison — Cloudflare apparently touts a content acceptance policy that Dr. Josef Mengele would have likely considered too extreme in its acceptance of monstrously evil content.

But Network Solutions claims to have higher standards (though it wouldn’t take much effort to beat Cloudflare in this regard) and I’m attempting to contact NSI officials now to determine if such racist sites are within their official policy standards. 

Oh, and by the way, guess what happens whenever you call the official Network Solutions listed phone number that they designate for “reporting abuse” — you get a recording (that doesn’t take a message) that says “they’re having difficulties — try again at a later time.”

Why are we not at all surprised?


Chrome Is Hiding URL Details — and It’s Confusing People Already!

UPDATE (September 17, 2018): Google Backs Off on Unwise URL Hiding Scheme, but Only Temporarily

UPDATE (September 7, 2018): Here’s How to Disable Google Chrome’s Confusing New URL Hiding Scheme

– – –

Here we go again. I’m already getting upset queries from confused Chrome users about this one. 

In Google’s continuing efforts to “dumb down” the Internet, their Chrome browser (beta version, currently) is now hiding what it considers to be “irrelevant” parts of site address URLs.

This means for example that if you enter “vortex.com” and get redirected to “www.vortex.com” as is my policy (and a typical type of policy at a vast number of sites), Chrome will only display “vortex.com” as the current URL, confusing anyone and everyone who might have a need to quickly note the actual full address URL. Also removed are http: and https: prefixes, leaving even fewer indications when sites are secure — exactly the WRONG approach these days when users need more help in these respects, not less!

And of course, if you’re manually writing down a URL based on the shortened version, there’s no guarantee that it will actually work if entered directly back into Chrome without passing through possible site redirect sequences.

But wait! You said that you want additional confusion? By golly you’ve got it! If you click up in the address bar and copy the Chrome shortened URL, it will appear that you’re copying the short version, but you’re actually copying the invisible original version with the full site URL — including the full address and the http: or https: prefixes. If you double click up there, Chrome visibly replaces its mangled version with the full version.

I can just imagine how this “feature” pushed through Google — “Hell, our users don’t really need to see all that URL detail stuff, so we’ll just hide it all from them! They’ll never know the difference!”

But the truth is that from the standpoint of everyday users who glance quickly at addresses and greatly benefit from multiple signals to help them establish that they’ve reached the exact and correct sites in a secure manner, the new Chrome URL mangling feature is an abomination, and I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that crooked site operators will find some ways to leverage this change for their own benefits as well.

As I said, this is currently in Chrome Beta, which means it’s likely to “graduate” to Chrome Stable — the one that most people run — sometime fairly soon.

Google is a great company, but their ability to churn out unforced errors like this — that especially disadvantage busy, non-techie users — remains a particularly bizarre aspect of their culture.


Third Parties Reading Your Gmail? Yeah, If You’ve Asked Them To!

Looks like the “Wall Street Journal” — pretty reliably anti-Google most of the time — is at it again. My inbox is flooded with messages from Google users concerned about the WSJ’s new article (being widely quoted across the Net) “exposing” the fact that third parties may have access to your Gmail.

Ooooh, scary! The horror! Well, actually not!

This one’s basically a nothingburger.

The breathless reporting on this topic is the “revelation” that if you’ve signed up with third-party apps and given them permission to access your Gmail, they — well, you know — have access to your Gmail! 

C’mon boys and girls, this isn’t rocket science. If you hire a secretary to go through your mail and list the important stuff for ya’, they’re going to be reading your mail. The same goes for these third-party apps that provide various value-added Gmail services to notify you about this, that, or the other. They have to read your Gmail to do what you want them to do! If you don’t want them reading your email, don’t sign up for them and don’t give them permission to access your Google account and Gmail! 

Part of the feigned outrage in this saga is the concern that in some cases actual human beings at these third-party firms may have been reading your email rather than only machines. Well golly, if they didn’t explicitly say that humans wouldn’t read them — remember that secretary? — why would one make such an assumption?

In fact, while it’s typical for the vast majority of such third-party systems to be fully automated, it wouldn’t be considered unusual for humans to read some emails for training purposes and/or to deal with exception conditions that the algorithms couldn’t handle. 

Seriously, if you’re going to sign up for third-party services like these — even though Google does carefully vet them — you should familiarize yourself with their Terms of Service if you’re going to be concerned about these kinds of issues.

Personally, I don’t give any third parties access to my Gmail. This simplifies my Gmail life considerably. Google has excellent internal controls on user data, and I fully trust Google to handle my data with care. Q.E.D.

And by the way, if you’ve lost track of third-party systems to which you may have granted access to your Gmail or other aspects of your Google account, there’s a simple way to check (and revoke access as desired) at the Google link:


But really, if you don’t want third parties reading your Gmail, just don’t sign up with those third parties in the first place!

Be seeing you.


Why Google Needs a “User Advocate at Large”

For many years I’ve been promoting the concept of an “ombudsman” to help act as an interface between Google and its user community. I won’t even bother listing the multitude of my related links here, they’re easy enough to find by — yeah, that’s right — Googling for them.

The idea has been to find a way for users — Google’s customers who are increasingly dependent on the firm’s services for an array of purposes (irrespective of whether or not they are “paying” users) — to have a genuine “seat at the table” when it comes to Google-related issues that affect them.

My ombudsmen concepts have consistently hit a figurative brick wall at the Googleplex. A concave outline of my skull top is probably nearly visible on the side of Building 43 by now.

Who speaks for Google’s ordinary users? That’s the perennial question as we approach Google’s 20th birthday, almost exactly two months from now.

Google’s communications division speaks mainly to the press. Google developer and design advocates help to make sure that relevant developer-related parties are heard by Google’s engineering teams. 

But beyond these specific scopes, there really aren’t user advocates per se at Google. In fact, a relevant Google search yields entries for Google design and developer advocates, and for user advocates at other firms. But there’s no obvious evidence of dedicated user advocate roles at Google itself.

Words matter. Precision of word choices matters. And in thinking about this recently, I’ve realized that my traditional use of the term “ombudsman” to address these concerns has been less than optimal.

Part of the reason for this is that the concept of “ombudsman” (which can be a male or female role, of course) carries with it a great deal of baggage. I realized this all along and attempted to explain that such roles were subject to definition within any given firm or other organization. 

But ombudsman is a rather formal term and is frequently associated with a person or persons who mainly deal with escalated consumer complaints, and so the term tends to carry an adversarial implication of sorts. The word really does not encompass the broader meanings of advocacy — and other associated communications between firms and users — that I’ve been thinking about over the years — but that I’ve not been adequately describing. I plead guilty.

“User advocacy” seems like a much more accurate term to approach the concepts that I’ve been so long discussing about Google and its everyday users.

Advocacy, not contentiousness. Participation, not confrontation. 

While it would certainly be possible to have user advocates focused on specific Google products and services, the multidisciplinary nature of Google suggests that an “at large” user advocate, or a group of such advocates working to foster user communications across a wide range of Google’s teams, might be more advantageous all around.

Google and Googlers create excellent services and products. But communications with users continues to be Google’s own Achilles’ heel, with many Google-related controversies based much more on misunderstandings than on anything else.

A genuine devotion to user advocacy, fostered by Googlers dedicated to this important task, could be great for Google’s users and for Google itself.


Google’s New Security Warning Is Terrifying Many Users

I’ve been getting email from people all over the world who are suddenly scared of accessing particular websites that they’ve routinely used. It was quickly obvious what is going on — the first clue was that they were all users running Chrome Beta. 

The problem: Google’s new “Not Secure” warning on sites not using https security is terrifying many people. Users are incorrectly (but understandably) interpreting “Not Secure” to mean “Dangerous and Hacked! Close this page now!”

And this is squarely Google’s fault.

Years ago, I predicted this outcome. 

Though I’ve long promoted the migration to secure Web connections via https, I’ve also repeatedly warned that there are vast numbers of widely referenced sites that provide enormous amounts of important information to users, often from archives and systems that have been running for many, many years — sometimes since before the beginnings of Google 20 years ago.

The vast majority of these sites don’t require login. They don’t request information from users. They are utterly read-only.

While non-encrypted connections to them are theoretically subject to man-in-the-middle attacks, the real world likelihood of their being subjected to such attacks is extraordinarily low.

Another common factor with many of these sites is that they are operating on a shoestring, often on donated resources, without the expertise, money, or time to convert to https. Many of these systems are running very old code, conversion of which to support https would be a major effort — even if someone were available to do the work.

Despite ongoing efforts by “Let’s Encrypt” and others to provide tools to help automate the transition to https, the reality is that it’s still usually a massive amount of work requiring serious expertise, for all but the smallest and simplest of sites — and even that’s for sites running relatively current code.

Let’s be utterly clear about this. “Not Secure” does not mean that a site is actually hacked or dangerous in any way, nor that its data has been tampered with in transit. 

But to many users — not all of whom are well versed on the fine points of Internet security, eh? — that kind of warning displayed in that manner is a guarantee of more unnecessary confusion and angst among large categories of users, many of whom are already feeling disadvantaged by other aspects of the Web, such as Google’s continuing accessibility failures in terms of readability and other user interface aspects, disproportionately affecting these growing classes of users.

With Google about to promote their “Not Secure” warning from Google Beta to the standard Google Stable that most people run, these problems are about to grow by orders of magnitude.

Through their specific interface design decisions in this regard, Google is imposing an uncompensated cost on many sites with extremely limited resources, a cost that could effectively kill them.

Might doesn’t always make right, and Google needs to rethink the details of this particular approach.