Category Archives: Trube On Tech

Technology reviews, emerging trends, a programmer and device user’s perspective.

Tools of the Trade

My mom was talking to me this weekend about a commercial she’d seen for a new car. It involved a group of people tossing their smart phones into a wood chipper, then being asked how they felt about it. One girl’s reply was that she felt a bit sick.

Personally I think I’d be looking for a bigger, cooler object to shred, like maybe an old desktop that’s given me trouble. And I would want back the $600 I paid for the phone (in the hypothetical world where I own a smartphone in the first place).

My relationship to technology is a lot like a carpenter and his tools. I work with all sorts of gadgets, and I do buy things so that I can have some specialized new functionality. Just recently I bought a $6 bluetooth keyboard for my tablet (after looking through literally 1000’s of options). But I don’t live on my gear (all appearances to the contrary), they’re just tools in my toolbox.

One of the first things I do when starting a new writing project is to put together my “go bag.” Typically this involves going to the thrift store to find something cool with all the right compartments I need (I have probably as many laptop/computer bags as some people have purses). My latest is an orange sport bag with a nice thin profile, lots of pockets, and a total cost of $3.

For my current writing projects, I’m trying to work without always carrying around a laptop. I have a couple of good on-the-go computers, but the boot-up time and battery life can hamper opportunities to write in odd locations. The kind of projects I’m working on now benefit from the ability to whip out a keyboard, type for fifteen minutes, then pack up. My tablet can carry large amounts of reading material, music, and media, everything I need to be productive in small bursts.

But as much as I work on computers or tablets, there are still tasks that call for old fashioned pencil and paper. I think a lot of authors romanticize fancy journals, leather-bound notebooks with wrap-around ties, something that looks like an ancient scribe that will lead you to the ark of the covenant. I’m susceptible to this as much as the next person, though I’ve divested myself somewhat of the notion that I’m going to fill these books with wonderfully profound short-stories or thoughts. Usually I just use them for taking notes.

This still can require specialized equipment. Because I have a small bag I want something small, sturdy, with a lot of pages, and a little cool looking. Since I’m taking math notation, I need a gridded notebook that meets these parameters (bought my first Moleskine brand notebook this week). I’ve heard that notation on paper can aid in retention of information, though truthfully it’s just as much about speed and not having to flip back and forth between what I’m reading on my tablet and my notes.

My point is, I carry around abilities, not gadgets.

Some of those abilities are purely entertainment based, and some are more practical, but the tools are not part of me. Short of worries about losing notes, having to replace items, or being worried about credit card information, these devices are just gear. It’s gear I trade in and out based on the needs of the moment. I make some effort to be connected, to check-in on social media, to tweet an appropriate number of times, and to write these posts, but it’s not the primary function of anything I carry. It’s the nail-file on my Leatherman. Occasionally useful, but not primarily why I have the device.

Maybe part of it is that I spread out my gear. No one device has all my contacts, music, pictures, writing, etc. I try to keep things roughly interchangeable, to allow for my cycling of moods between trying to carry the minimum possible, and the whole kitchen sink. And I like specialized devices rather than multi-purpose ones. I actually think there’s a benefit to something that can only do one thing, my eReader is still the device on which I do the most reading, not my tablet, because there are fewer distractions.

I worry as I write this that I sound anachronistic, out of touch with modern culture and devices. My refusal to own a smartphone already puts me dangerously close to the Grandpa class. Heck, my Dad has a smartphone, and loves it. But I think skepticism is healthy. Then again, you are reading the opinions of a bearded man whose dream is to live in a cabin in the woods. So take that for what it’s worth.

I think at the very least we should examine our relationship to devices from time to time. And if the thought of losing them makes us sick, maybe it’s time to pull back a little.

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I stand with Pear

I stand with the idealized version of a company who innovates and stands up for our privacy and civil liberties. On TV we don’t often see this company by name (unless they’re a sponsor) but we know who we’re talking about when we see a piece of fruit on a laptop. The Simpsons was cutting it pretty close with “Mapple.”

The real Apple, I’m not so sure about.

The Basics

These are very technical issues that I’m presenting in a colloquial way. But I think this situation is something that can be understood and thought about by anyone.

The FBI requested*  Apple’s assistance in unlocking the phone of one of the San Bernardino gunmen. Specifically they asked Apple to do the following:

  • Create a way for the FBI to guess the phone’s code by brute force (trying all possible codes) without having to type in the numbers or letters.
  • Disable any delay countermeasures that space out the time between guesses (i.e. Make it so the FBI doesn’t have to wait half an hour after five bad guesses).
  • Create a program that prevents the phone from erasing its contents after a set number of bad guesses.
  • Do all of these things without modifying the contents of the phone.

Apple CEO Tim Cook stated in a letter Apple’s opposition to the court order**. Their basic argument is the following:

  • A program to crack an encrypted iPhone does not currently exist. If they write one, there exists a possibility (however small), that the program will find its way into the wild and will be misused either by hackers, or even by unchecked government surveillance.
  • If you write a program to crack this one iPhone, you’ve written it to crack all iPhones. In Apple’s words “The government is asking us to hack our users.”
  • Complying with the order may set a dangerous precedent and allow for Government overreach.

Some Analysis

Here’s one thing Apple didn’t say: We CAN’T comply with the order.

If you’re technically inclined you should read this article from the Trail of Bits Blog. It does a good job of explaining encryption at all the various layers, what the government asked Apple to do, and how Apple could do it.

Basically there are two locks on a phone. The passcode which the FBI is trying to break, and the phone’s hardware key (stored in a couple of different places depending on the model of phone). You need both keys to decrypt the data, but you can get the hardware key if you get the passcode right. Trying to decrypt the data without these keys is basically impossible.

What Apple is saying is that they CAN write a program that will allow you to brute force guess the first key, which gives you the second key and access to the phone. The phone’s security CAN be bypassed. According to the Trail of Bits estimates it would take half an hour to retrieve a four-digit pin, a few hours to get a six-digit pin, and up to 5.5 years to guess a six-digit alphanumeric passcode. The FBI hasn’t mentioned which type of code they’re trying to crack on this particular phone.

Is this a bad thing?

Well generally, yes.

Apple’s taking a stand that they won’t write this program because to do so would expose their phones. But the fact that it’s possible for them to comply with the order suggests that someone else could write this program and expose iPhones in the same way. Apple didn’t give any estimates on how long it would take to engineer a program like this.

Basically, if Apple cared about privacy as much as they say they do, they’d make a phone they couldn’t crack even if someone asked nicely (though that sounds a lot easier than it is).

So why doesn’t the government write this program themselves if it’s so easy to write?

They need Apple’s digital signatures, and knowledge of the iOS operating system. A rogue program doesn’t just run on your phone. It needs to be verified, and Apple can write something the phone will recognize as authentic.

So it’s not so easy?

Well, the problem is this. Apple and the government are both very security conscious places. And they’ve both been hacked. That’s why Apple says they’re worried about bringing a program like this into the world. It could always get out. The problem is, so can digital signatures. And engineers can always be personally targeted. Many data breaches work at the human level, not the technological.

What do you think?

I think this is one of the worst possible cases for Apple to have to take a stand on. This was a terrible act of terror, the phone is owned by the shooter’s employer who has agreed to let the FBI try to crack it, and it’s possible the FBI could learn about other terrorists or even future attacks from the phone’s contents (though, then again, maybe not).

Tim Cook’s tone is alarmist and a bit strident. Even if you agree that privacy is important, you probably also think that law enforcement should have some ability to get information it needs.

But privacy really is important. Sure, we want to be able to crack the bad guy’s phones. But if we create tools to crack those phones, who’s to say that program won’t be used to crack the phones of people trying to do real good in countries with oppressive regimes.

Maybe what the FBI needs is the assistance of one Benedict Cumberbatch. He was able to guess the passcode of Irene Adler’s phone, thus removing any leverage she might have had over him. Her phone was literally “Sher-locked.” No, seriously. Check out Wikipedia if you think I’m lying.

I think Apple’s right to challenge the court order. These sorts of things shouldn’t be followed blindly without at least some public discussion of practical limits, and an understanding of the potential risks. But I don’t think either side has the clear moral high ground.

So I stand with Pear. They make a great uncrackable myPhone, even though the fruit is terrible.

PS. Thanks to Adam for his great thoughts on this issue and for starting a conversation that lead to a lot of good articles.

————-

* I’m using a nice term, it was a court order actually.

** If you read the whole letter, Apple’s pretty clear about how horrible the San Bernardino shooting is, and how they’ve made every reasonable effort to assist law enforcement.

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Chasing Technology: Worse Than Chasing Aliens

What do we tell young authors? Avoid publishing trends. By the time you write a book on the latest hot topic, the trend has long since passed you by. This happens on a smaller scale in blogging, a news topic may be relevant to write about today, but be yesterday’s news tomorrow.

Writing technology into your story can fall into the same set of problems. The X-Files got its much anticipated return to television last night (I haven’t seen it yet, and probably won’t till next weekend, so no spoilers). I, like many others, took the opportunity of its return to start re-watching some of the old episodes.

Woo boy.

There’s two levels on which the X-Files engaged with tech, as a means of moving the story forward (i.e. a tool), and as the main subject of the story (usually the antagonist). In the tool category you just write what’s around today, which in the era of the X-Files was huge cell-phones, dial-up modems, floppy disks, and data cassettes (remember those?). Remember 90’s websites?

I’m not a fan of Jimmy Kimmel, but he did a pretty funny sketch about X-Files tech (see below):

When technology is the subject of the story, you run some risk of being dated. I actually think the upload story (Season 5’s: Kill Switch), holds up, since talk of the singularity is just starting to enter the public consciousness, whereas older AI episodes (Season 1’s: Ghost In The Machine) feel corny (even though malevolent AI plots are still a staple of sci-fi).

So how do we make technology stories feel less dated, while still having something to say about where we are with our relationship with technology today? Below are some brief thoughts, things I learned along the way while writing Surreality:

Technology doesn’t catch up everywhere: There are still people who use VCR’s. Police department funding is probably not at the level of what you see on NCIS and CSI (itself a now dated reference). You’ll get some grace for a little while, since not everyone is going to have an Occulus Rift, or even the latest tablet or smartphone, today.

Story matters first: Probably one of the reasons “Kill Switch” holds up (aside from being written by William Gibson), is the story. You could replace the orbiting laser platform with a drone strike, and the rest of the story would still hold up. The characters are interesting, the dialog is funny, and the style choices (the expert use of “Twilight Time”) make it unique and memorable. Sure we had virus programs written on CDs and lots of wires and huge cameras, but the core still works.

You can always revise: Surreality was written and rewritten over an interesting period. Social media went from something casual between a few college students, to pervasive throughout our lives, and provided on more platforms than you can imagine. You don’t have to know every variety of platform, but Twitter and Facebook have been around a while. Same rules apply here as they do when you’re building your author network, write what you know, don’t throw in something you think might be good if it serves no other purpose than name dropping.

Jump a little ahead: It’s probably not that hard to imagine some things that might be possible in a few years time. AI has been a staple of sci-fi since the 40s and 50s, and we’re still a long way from having a true strong AI, in the Data from Star Trek sense of the word. Attitudes about AI may seem dated, but the concept itself so far is evergreen.

Or a little behind: There are numerous indie games produced that capture the look and feel of classic games from the 90’s, down to the pixel art and MIDI music. A lot of tablets and phone games also go for this pixel idea. If a fictional game you’re writing about seems behind the times, it might be deliberate, a style and nostalgic choice. We may not ever be nostalgic for floppies, but we certainly are for records and old games.

The big take away here should always be, story comes first. Write a good story, and people will forgive that you talked about big desktops like they’re still a thing. They might even find it kind of campy, which is not a bad place to be. Certainly hasn’t been for the X-Files.

If you liked this, you may like my latest technological mystery: Surreality.

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Working with tablets

Microsoft’s recent series of ads for the new Surface Pro includes the tagline “The tablet that can replace your laptop”. In the sense that the tablet costs roughly what 2-3 decent laptops cost ($899) I would agree. But this isn’t really a post about ragging on Microsoft (it’s generally not nice to kick someone when they’re down). Instead, I’d like to take on the notion of tablets replacing your laptop.

I’m a cheapskate when it comes to tablets. The idea of spending more than $99 on a single piece of tablet hardware seems silly to me when I can buy more power in a laptop. So most of what I own are 7″ tablets and eReaders, including the newest fifth generation Amazon Fire (which I discussed last week). Some of you with 10″ tablets or more disposable income may have different opinions, but listed below are some of the ways tablets have helped and hindered my writing work.

Reading (Superior to laptop, both superior and inferior to paper books): I am a voracious reader, and tablets let me bring a whole library books with me wherever I go. They’re not as good to flip through for specific bits, though tablets outstrip most eReaders in this respect. And physical books can’t travel as easily to the places I actually have time to read (I can’t plug a paper book into a car stereo and have it read to me).

Research (Internet research okay, Wikipedia good, not as good as paper books): The same principle of being able to carry more with me applies, and it is nice to not have to lug around 900 page programming books. But for fractal research, the real book is much better. Basic internet research can be slower especially for a multi-tab person like myself, but specialized apps like Wikipedia hold up to their laptop equivalents.

Writing new drafts (Terrible): Even with an external keyboard, tablets will never match up to the capabilities of even the most stripped down computer. And onscreen keyboards, even on larger tablets, feel unnatural and are prone to fat-fingering or auto-correct. There may be an argument that tablets slow you down in the same ways writing a draft by hand does, but I don’t have to fight my hand to write the word I meant to say.

Writing notes (On par, maybe even better): I’ve been keeping notes for my latest book on my new Kindle. It’s nice to have by the bedside, and I have more confidence the notes won’t be lost. Still slow going, but not bad.

E-mail (On par, more convenient locations): For complex or long e-mails it’s not as good as a laptop, but for a basic conversation it’s nice to just sit in the living room rather than having to go down to my office.

Sorting through files (Great): At the moment I’m going through several 1000 images selecting some for an upcoming project. This is tedious and necessary work, and something that’s nice to do when I’m watching a show or waiting on a program to run. My old tablets weren’t as good at this task, but the new Fire lets me toss 4GB of image files on without disturbing all of my personal entertainment media.

Revision (Helpful aid, but the real work is being done on the keyboard): I find it extremely helpful to always have access to my latest or previous drafts of a book on the tablet. It’s something I can easily put side-by-side with my computer, particularly when I’m re-writing new sections from scratch, or when I need to catch up by having a section read to me. But the idea of doing complex editing like rearranging paragraphs, words, or sections on a tablet just doesn’t work for me. I need the finer control of a mouse.

Social Media (Twitter great, Facebook okay, WordPress good for looking at stats and not much else).

Programming (N/A): If there’s a way to write code on the tablet I’d love to try it, but for now I like IDE’s on real machines.

My general conclusion is that a tablet is a great way to complement tasks I perform on the computer, or to allow me to work in odd locations at shorter intervals. But my real work is still done on computers.

Discuss.

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