A Geek With Guns

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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Don’t Forget to Put Your Shoes on the Charger

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Nobody could credibly accuse me of being a Luddite but there are a lot of products that cause me to tilt my head and say what the fuck. Nike released a video of basketball players adjusting a pair of self-lacing shoes with a smartphone app. The shoes themselves are blurred out like genitals in a Japanese porno but the point is made clearly enough: Nike has self-lacing shoes that interface with smartphone.

My initial reaction was to assume that this product was the epitome of laziness. But then I thought about it and decided that digging out my smartphone, unlocking it, opening an app, and tapping a button actually requires more work than manually tying shoes. So I’m left to assume that these shoes are aimed at people who a) want to add the risk of being unable to lace up their shoes in the morning because they forgot to put them on the charger the night before and b) want the thrill of adding more hazardous materials to landfills when they toss out their battery equipped shoes.

Written by Christopher Burg

January 15th, 2019 at 10:30 am

Corporate Euphemisms

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Apple’s quest to make its products thinner at any cost is once again making some customers unhappy. There have been reports of iPad Pros arriving bent out of the box. I would be unhappy even if a $100 table arrived bent out of the box so it shouldn’t be surprising that I’d be unhappy if an $800+ tablet arrived bent out of the box. But now that Apple is positioning itself as a luxury products company, it’s striving to provide the same level of customer satisfaction as, say, Patek Philippe, right? After all, if you purchased a new Patek Philippe watch and it had any defect whatsoever, the company would likely bend over backwards to remedy the situation since it knows that, as a luxury products company, it lives an dies by its reputation for customer satisfaction. If you believed that, you would be incorrect.

Instead of addressing the issue of bent iPad Pros, Apple has taken the route of using corporate euphemisms to explain why bent iPad Pros are something with which customers will just have to live:

These precision manufacturing techniques and a rigorous inspection process ensure that these new iPad Pro models meet an even tighter specification for flatness than previous generations. This flatness specification allows for no more than 400 microns of deviation across the length of any side — less than the thickness of four sheets of paper. The new straight edges and the presence of the antenna splits may make subtle deviations in flatness more visible only from certain viewing angles that are imperceptible during normal use. These small variances do not affect the strength of the enclosure or the function of the product and will not change over time through normal use.

That’s a lot of words to say your brand new $800+ iPad Pro may arrive at your doorstep bent.

This issue reminds me a lot of the issue with the iPhone 4 where holding it in your left hand could cause cellular signal degradation (and thus drop your call). Instead of addressing the issue right away, Steve Jobs tried to argue that the solution was to hold the phone “correctly.” Eventually Apple opted for the half-assed solution of providing a free case, which was at least better than publishing an official page that used a lot of words to try to hand wave the problem away.

Between this and the high failure rate of the MacBook butterfly switch keyboards, Apple is having a rough start to its transition from a consumer electronics company into a luxury products company.

Written by Christopher Burg

January 8th, 2019 at 10:00 am

You’re Unboxing It Wrong

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Apple has spent the last couple of years transitioning itself from a consumer electronics company to a luxury products company. For the most part it has been doing a good job of this. The company’s attention to detail on its products is easy to see. However, when you’re a luxury products company, expectations go up. Somebody who buys a Seiko 5 isn’t likely to throw a fit because the second hand doesn’t sweep smoothly. Somebody who spends the big bucks on a Rolex is probably going to be unhappy if their second hand isn’t gliding smoothly over the watch face. Likewise, somebody who buys an Amazon Fire table is probably willing to tolerate a number of limitations and defects. Somebody who spends no less than $799 on an iPad Pro is probably going to be unhappy if their brand new tablet is bent out of the box:

Apple has confirmed to The Verge that some of its 2018 iPad Pros are shipping with a very slight bend in the aluminum chassis. But according to the company, this is a side effect of the device’s manufacturing process and shouldn’t worsen over time or negatively affect the flagship iPad’s performance in any practical way. Apple does not consider it to be a defect.

The thing about being a luxury products company is that you need to make your customers feel special. Telling them that they have to live with a defect on a brand new product isn’t going to fly, especially when your cheaper competitors are apt to replace new products that have any kind of defect whatsoever (if you received a slightly bent Fire table, Amazon would probably get a replacement heading your away immediately).

Apple’s response on this matter is reminiscent of Steve Jobs’s response to people complaining about the iPhone 4 dropping calls when they held it in their left hand (for those who don’t know, he told them that they were holding it wrong). That might have flown when the iPhone was a reasonably priced option on the market but I have my doubts that such a cavalier attitude is going to fly now that Apple’s products are priced as high as they are.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 20th, 2018 at 11:00 am

The Unseen Threat of Advertising Companies

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Most people have a very poor understanding about how advertising companies work. Everybody who uses Facebook and doesn’t use an ad blocker sees ads. They may even consciously recognize that those ads are how Facebook makes money. What they often don’t understand though is that Facebook isn’t just displaying ads, it’s also selling their personal information to third-parties. Even when people do understand that their personal information is being sold to third-parties, they often don’t understand what exactly is being sold. They assume it’s the content they upload like photos and decide it’s not a big issue because they lead a “boring” life. But then they discuss intimate and sometimes embarrassing medical issues with family members through Facebook’s messaging service:

The exchange was intended to benefit everyone. Pushing for explosive growth, Facebook got more users, lifting its advertising revenue. Partner companies acquired features to make their products more attractive. Facebook users connected with friends across different devices and websites. But Facebook also assumed extraordinary power over the personal information of its 2.2 billion users — control it has wielded with little transparency or outside oversight.

Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.

The unseen threat of advertising companies is that all of the data they collect is potentially for sale and you have no idea to whom they’re selling.

A lot of people probably don’t care if Netflix or Microsoft have access to their “private” messages. But technology companies aren’t the only kids on the block with big bucks. Do you really want your health insurance company having access to your “private” messages? That medical issue that grandma messaged you about may be hereditary and the fact that you might face it at some point may convince your health insurance company to up your premium. Would Facebook provide access to your “private” messages to health insurance companies? You have no way of knowing.

And even if Facebook guaranteed that they wouldn’t sell your “private” messages to health insurance companies, they could change their policy down the road (Facebook is, after all, notorious for making changes to privacy policies without notice). Or another party to whom Facebook is selling your “private” messages may sell them to health insurance companies. Once the data exists on Facebook’s servers you lose all control over it.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 20th, 2018 at 10:30 am

Apple’s Diminishing Quality

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Yesterday I was asked to recommend an Apple laptop (the laptop was going to somebody with a learning disability so the hurdle of transitioning them to a non-Apple platform was great and not a realistic option). As I was making my recommendation it really struck me just how far Apple’s laptops have fallen in the last few years.

In the past when somebody asked me if they should get AppleCare, I usually recommended against doing so. Apple’s laptops were pretty reliable and when they did fail, they could usually be repaired.

Apple’s current lineup has a significant problem. The new slim butterfly keyboards are notoriously fragile. A mere piece of debris getting under a key cap is enough to disable that key. This wouldn’t be a problem with a normal laptop keyboard because there is enough clearance to easily remove most debris that gets caught under a keycap. Moreover, even if the debris cannot be easily remove, the keycap usually can, which allows you to remove the offending debris. Getting a keycap off of a butterfly keyboard without wrecking the fragile butterfly mechanism isn’t easy. And if you do damage the mechanism, you’re stuck replacing the entire keyboard and that requires breaking a bunch of rivets that hold the keyboard to the top of the casing. This is why Apple replaces the entire top case when the keyboard needs to be replaced.

So you have a keyboard that cannot be serviced and has a high probability of failing. Strike one.

Strike two is the solid state drive (SSD). Apple no longer utilizes modular SSDs. Instead their SSDs are soldered to the mainboard. With SSDs failure is a matter of when, not if. This is because flash memory cells can only handle so many erase operations. SSD manufacturers attempt to prolong the life of their product with wear leveling but that only means that the time between failures is extended, it’s not eliminated. This isn’t a big deal with modular SSDs. If an SSD is modular and croaks, you replace the dead SSD with a new one. When an SSD that is soldered to the mainboard croaks, you end up having to replace the entire mainboard. Since the mainboard also has the processor and graphics card soldered to it, you necessary end up replacing those pricey components as well. What used to be a relatively cheap unavoidable repair has become an extremely expensive unavoidable repair.

Recommending an Apple laptop has become an exercise in presenting the least bad option. An expensive repair is a matter of when, not if. The keyboard is likely to suffer a premature death because of its design and lack of repairability. If the keyboard survives, the SSD will eventually die, necessitating replacing the entire mainboard (and thus the processor and graphics card). Instead of recommending a computer that I know will likely leave the buyer happy for years to come, recommending an Apple laptop involves tagging on a great number of caveats and warnings so that when the buyer is looking at an absurd repair bill, they aren’t doing so unexpectedly.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 18th, 2018 at 10:00 am

Posted in Technology

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Great Claims Request Great Evidence

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A couple of months ago Bloomberg made big waves with an article that claimed China had inserted hardware bugs into the server architecture of many major American companies, including Amazon and Apple. Doubts were immediately raised by a few people because the Bloomberg reporters weren’t reporting on a bugged board that they had seen, they merely cited claims made by anonymous sources (always a red flag in a news article). But the hack described, although complicated in nature, wasn’t outside of the realm of possibility. Moreover, Bloomberg isn’t a tabloid, the organization has some journalistic readability, so the threat was treated seriously.

Since the threat was being taken seriously, actual investigations were being performed by the companies named in the article. This is where the credibility of the article started to falter. Apple and Amazon both announced that after investigating the matter they no evidence that their systems were compromised. Finally the company specifically named as the manufacturer of the compromised servers announced that an independent audit found no evidence to support Bloomberg’s claims:

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Computer hardware maker Super Micro Computer Inc told customers on Tuesday that an outside investigations firm had found no evidence of any malicious hardware in its current or older-model motherboards.

In a letter to customers, the San Jose, California, company said it was not surprised by the result of the review it commissioned in October after a Bloomberg article reported that spies for the Chinese government had tainted Super Micro equipment to eavesdrop on its clients.

Could Apple, Amazon, and Super Micro all be lying about the findings of their investigations as some have insinuated? They certainly could be. But I subscribe to the idea that great claims require great evidence. Bloomberg has failed to produce any evidence to back its claims. If the hack described in its article was as pervasive as the article claimed, it should have been easy for the journalists to acquire or at least see one of these compromised boards. There is also the question of motivation.

Most reports indicated that China has had great success hacking systems the old fashioned way. One of the advantages to remote software hacks is that they leave behind little in the way of hard evidence. The evidence that is left behind can usually be plausibly denied by the Chinese government (it can claim that Chinese hackers unaffiliated with the government performed a hack for example). Why would China risk leaving behind physical evidence that is much harder to deny when it is having success with methods that are much easier to deny?

Unless Bloomberg can provide some evidence to support its claims, I think it’s fair to call bullshit on the article at this point.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 12th, 2018 at 10:30 am

Posted in Technology

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Who Needs Copy and Paste Anyways

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WordPress 5.0 was rolled out on Friday and with it came the new Gutenberg Editor. I’m not a curmudgeon who’s unwilling to give new features a chance. However, I found myself wanting to disable Gutenberg within seconds of trying to use it. Why? Because I couldn’t get the stupid thing to accept pasted text.

Most of my posts involve linking to a story and posting an excerpt of the part on which I want to comment. Needless to say copy and paste is pretty bloody important for what I do. Moreover, copy and paste are two of the most basic operations for an editor. It turns out that I’m not the only one unhappy with Gutenberg. During my quick search to find a way to revert to WordPress’s previous editor I came across a WordPress plugin called Disable Gutenberg. It has over 20,000 active installations and a five star rating, which indicates that it does its job well and the job it does is in high demand.

My setup isn’t anything special. I use Firefox with a few basic add-ons (HTTPS Everywhere, Privacy Badger, uBlock Origin, Multi-Account Containers, Auto Tab Discard, and Bitwarden). This setup worker well with the previous WordPress editor. This leads me to believe that WordPress’s developers didn’t thoroughly test Gutenberg before releasing it. Failing to perform thorough testing before releasing a major update isn’t unique to WordPress though, it has become the standard operating procedure for technology companies.

When I see a new update for any piece of software I use, I become a bit wary. When I see that the update includes new features, I become downright nervous. More often than not new features are released half baked. The weeks (or months) following the release of a new feature are usually spent making it work properly or at least provide the same functionality as the feature it replaced. This is annoying to say the least. I would much rather see the technology industry move develop an attitude that saw reliability as a critical feature instead of an afterthought. But I doubt this will happen. Reliability is a difficult feature to sell to most consumers and the work needed to make a product reliable is boring.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 11th, 2018 at 10:00 am

This Neopuritan Internet Is Weird

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Just days after Tumblr announced that it will be committing corporate seppuku Facebook has announced that it too is joining the neopuritan revolution:

Facebook will now “restrict sexually explicit language”—because “some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content”—as well as talk about “partners who share sexual interests,” art featuring people posed provocatively, “sexualized slang,” and any “hints” or mentions of sexual “positions or fetish scenarios.”

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The new Sexual Solicitation policy starts by stating that while Facebook wants to faciliate discussion “and draw attention to sexual violence and exploitation,” it “draw[s] the line…when content facilitates, encourages, or coordinates sexual encounters between adults.” Can we pause a moment to appreciate how weird it is that they lump those things together in the first place? Whatever the intent, it reads as if only content coding sex as exploitative, violent, and negative will be tolerated on the site, while even “encouraging” consensual adult sex is forbidden.

This is a rather odd attitude for a website that recently rolled out a dating service. Does Facebook seriously believe its dating service isn’t being used to facilitate, encourage, and coordinate sexual encounters between adults?

This neopuritan Internet is getting weird. Both Tumblr and Facebook have mechanisms that allow content to be walled off from the general public. These mechanisms serve as a good middle ground that allow users to post controversial content while protecting random passersby from seeing it. But instead of utilizing them, these two services are opting for a scorched Earth policy. It seems like a waste of money to pay developers to create mechanisms to hide controversial content form the public and not utilize them.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 7th, 2018 at 10:30 am

Posted in Technology

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Shooting Yourself in the Foot… with a Machine Gun

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Tumblr has been known for two things: pornography and social justice blogs. After December 17th it will only be known for social justice blogs. The service announced that it was going to commit corporate suicide by remove all pornography from the site. But Tumblr isn’t taking the easy way out. Instead it has opted to prolong its misery, to commit corporate seppuku if you will, by using machine learning to remove pornography from its site:

For some reason, the blogging site hopes that people running porn blogs will continue to use the site after the December 17 ban but restrict their postings to the non-pornographic. As such, the company isn’t just banning or closing blogs that are currently used for porn; instead, it’s analyzing each image and marking those it deems to be pornographic as “explicit.” The display of explicit content will be suppressed, leaving behind a wasteland of effectively empty porn blogs.

This would be bad enough for Tumblr users if it were being done effectively, but naturally, it isn’t. No doubt using the wonderful power of machine learning—a thing companies often do to distance themselves from any responsibility for the actions taken by their algorithms—Tumblr is flagging non-adult content as adult content, and vice versa. Twitter is filling with complaints about the poor job the algorithm is doing.

Machine learning has become the go-to solution for companies that want to make it appear as though they’re “doing something” without taking on the responsibilities. We’re already seeing the benefits of this decision. A lot of non-porn material is being removed by whatever algorithms they’re using and when users complain Tumblr can say, “Don’t blame us! The machine screwed up!” Thus Tumblr absolves itself of responsibility. Of course the three people who post non-pornographic content to Tumblr are likely to flee after tiring of playing Russian roulette with the porn scanning algorithm but I’m fairly certain Verizon, which owns Tumblr now, just wants to shutdown the service without listening to a bunch of people who still use the platform whine.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 6th, 2018 at 10:30 am

Unexpected Microsoft

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Microsoft has been making all sorts of unexpected moves in the last few years. The company released Visual Studio Code, which is not only an excellent code editing environment but available under the open source MIT License. In addition to that, Microsoft also released an open source version of its .NET framework and Windows Subsystem for Linux. Needless to say, it’s becoming more difficult to hate the company lately.

Now to top it all off it sounds like Microsoft is going to abandon its customer HTML rendering engine and replace it with Chromium:

Because of this, I’m told that Microsoft is throwing in the towel with EdgeHTML and is instead building a new web browser powered by Chromium, which uses a similar rendering engine first popularized by Google’s Chrome browser. Codenamed “Anaheim,” this new browser for Windows 10 will replace Edge as the default browser on the platform, according to my sources, who wish to remain anonymous. It’s unknown at this time if Anaheim will use the Edge brand or a new brand, or if the user interface (UI) between Edge and Anaheim is different. One thing is for sure, however; EdgeHTML in Windows 10’s default browser is dead.

I have mixed feeling about this. On the one hand, it’s good to see Microsoft moving towards an open source rendering engine. On the other hand, I don’t enjoy seeing the rendering engine market turning into a duopoly (with the only major non-Chromium engine, Firefox’s, having a paltry percentage of market share).

Watching Microsoft do an about face from being the satanic figure to the open source community has been fun to watch. It probably is the greatest testament to the viability of open source software out there.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 4th, 2018 at 10:00 am