A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Archive for the ‘Technology’ tag

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

Tim May Has Passed

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Yesterday I learned that Tim May, the man who established the concept of crypto-anarchy, passed away:

Tim May, co-founder of the influential Cypherpunks mailing list and a significant influence on both bitcoin and WikiLeaks, passed away last week at his home in Corralitos, California. The news was announced Saturday on a Facebook post written by his friend Lucky Green.

In his influential 1988 essay, “The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto,” May predicted that advances in computer technology would eventually allow “individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other” anonymously and without government intrusion. “These developments will alter completely the nature of government regulation [and] the ability to tax and control economic interactions,” he wrote.

The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto influenced me greatly. It was an important document when it was released and its importance has only grown since then. Today surveillance technology is pervasive, which has caused many people to feel hopeless but, as The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto pointed out, technological advances would also give people the power to communicate away from the gaze of Big Brother.

May’s predictions did pan out. Consider the Silk Road and it’s various offspring. Crypto-currencies enable people to avoid one of the government’s largest sources of control, monetary exchanges. Tor provides a protocol that allows people to view and host sites anonymously. When these two technologies were combined, the prohibition enforcers had a hell of a time taking it down and only managed to do so because the suspected creator made a post on a clear web forum with an e-mail address associated with an account on Silk Road. Today there are dozens of online drug markets veiled by Tor and crypto-currencies that the prohibition enforcers have so far been unable to take down.

There are numerous technologies available to allow us to communicate with each other secretly. Signal is probably the best example as it is both easy to use and its protocol has remains unbroken. Even clear web traffic has become more difficult to surveil. When Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency’s (NSA) pervasive domestic surveillance program, a lot of online traffic was transmitted in the clear. Today more and more traffic is transmitted in an encrypted manner, partially thanks to the efforts of Let’s Encrypt, which allows server administrators to setup trusted Transport Layer Security (TLS) connections for free.

Tim May and the ideas he helped establish deserve a lot of credit for influencing all of this. Fortunately, even though he is no longer with us, his ideas are established and will remain with us.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 18th, 2018 at 11:00 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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The FCC’s Wealth Redistribution Plan

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The Fascist Communications Commission (FCC) has revealed its latest plan for wealth redistribution. The agency wants to tax successful online businesses so it can give that money to Internet Service Providers (ISP):

A Federal Communications Commission advisory committee has proposed a new tax on Netflix, Google, Facebook, and many other businesses that require Internet access to operate.

If adopted by states, the recommended tax would apply to subscription-based retail services that require Internet access, such as Netflix, and to advertising-supported services that use the Internet, such as Google and Facebook. The tax would also apply to any small- or medium-sized business that charges subscription fees for online services or uses online advertising. The tax would also apply to any provider of broadband access, such as cable or wireless operators.

The collected money would go into state rural broadband deployment funds that would help bring faster Internet access to sparsely populated areas. Similar universal service fees are already assessed on landline phone service and mobile phone service nationwide. Those phone fees contribute to federal programs such as the FCC’s Connect America Fund, which pays AT&T and other carriers to deploy broadband in rural areas.

As somebody who grew up in a rural area and still has family in a rural area I can say with some certainty that ISPs aren’t using the money they’re getting from these taxes to provide rural communities with broadband Internet. Fortunately, there are methods for rural communities to get broadband Internet and, best of all, it doesn’t require any wealth redistribution.

The claim that the taxes will be used for rural broadband initiatives is just another euphemism to avoid calling the tax what it is, plundering the pockets of plebs to line the pockets of ISPs with good government connections.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 14th, 2018 at 11:00 am

Tax Them to Death

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The government here in the frozen tundra of Minnesota likes to tax us plebs hard. However, as bad as we get bled it’s nothing compared to California. It’s clear that the government of California doesn’t see the denizens cursed to live in its state as people but as cattle. Every time you turn around the government is enacting or proposing a new tax. Yesterday it was reported that a new proposal is to tax text messages. But a proposal of a new tax in California isn’t anymore newsworthy than pointing out that the name of the day today ends in “y.” What is amusing though is the number of euphemisms that are used to make the new proposal sound like something other than theft:

As mobile phone users have shifted their usage patterns away from voice calls, voice call revenues for PPP have dropped by about a third, while the budget for subsidizing poorer users has risen by almost half. So California’s PUC is exploring its options and, as texts share infrastructure with voice calls — even if the medium is different — it estimates it could raise $44.5 million a year with the change. Applied retroactively it could amount to a bill of more than $220 million for California consumers.

You see? It’s for the poor! If you complain about this proposed tax, you’re obviously a rich baron who hates poor people! Oh, and this proposed tax isn’t actually stealing money from you. You see, “revenues” are down because you stupid plebs don’t call your mother enough so this is really just reclaiming cash that has been lost because of you assholes!

As the article points out though, text messaging is declining as chat applications take their place. This proposed tax will be irrelevant in short order, which means the Public Utilities Commission will be looking for a new way to bleed Californians in a few years. This is the vicious cycle of taxation. A tax is placed on a popular consumer activity, that activity is eventually replaced by a different activity, a new tax is placed on the new popular consumer activity, and so on.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 13th, 2018 at 11:00 am

Changing the Rules

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As the tirade against intellectual property I posted last week probably demonstrated, I really don’t like it when content creators change rules after I’ve purchased a product. It should also come as no surprise that the gaming industry has inspired yet another rant from me by changing the rules after purchase since the gaming industry seems to be the biggest offender in this regard.

Capcom released Street Fighter V in 2016. Fighting games aren’t my thing so I never purchased it but a lot of people did, for the full new game price of $60. Then, as it tradition with Capcom, a new edition of the same game was was released for $40. So far, so good. However, Capcom has announced that those who paid $40 for the new Arcade Edition will now have to deal with in-game ads:

Capcom is introducing “sponsored content” to Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition on December 11th to promote its purchasable bundles, costumes and the Pro Tour. You’ll see them on costumes, in certain stages and on pre-fight loading screens.

While Capcom is offering players the option to disable ads, doing so will negatively impact their game play experience by making unlockables trickle out at a glacial pace, which is the same strategy free-to-play games employ (buy in game currency or you’ll be grinding forever).

I have no objection to ad supported, free-to-play, or subscription games so long as I’m told up front how the developer is going to make its money. I do object when developers charge full price for a game and then change the business model after the fact. This is the reason I no longer purchase or play games on my iPhone. It’s quite common for mobile game developers to charge a price up front and then transition to a free-to-play model at a later date. When the transition occurs, the gameplay is almost always altered to make advancing in the game much more time consuming (not necessarily more difficult, just time consuming) to encourage you to buy in-game currency. If you purchased the game before the transition occurred, you’re effectively charged twice for the same game.

Unfortunately, the app store model makes this bait and switch tactic much easier to pull off. If an old computer game did this, I just wouldn’t install any updates after the transition occurred. However, with the app store model there generally isn’t a way to download previous versions of an app so even if you avoid installing updates after a developer changes to a new business model, you won’t be able to install the version you had if you have to reformat your phone. The same is also true on modern consoles where only the latest version of a game can be downloaded from the online app store and only the latest update can be applied to a physical copy of the game.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 12th, 2018 at 11:00 am

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