Tag Archives: Apple

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.

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* 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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USB-C – Sex will never be the same again

It’s an old joke to those of you who are fans of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, but the way USB cables used to work was this:

  1. Try to plug USB cable in
  2. Doesn’t work so flip over
  3. Try to plug it in
  4. Doesn’t work so flip over
  5. Plugs in

For those of you who chose geekier ways of giving the sex talk (if you’re gonna call the connector ends male and female this is bound to happen somewhere), using a USB cable analogy for men and women might lead to some confusion later in life.

But there’s a new USB standard that’s been floating around for a few months, and Mac’s latest laptop is the first to implement it, USB-C.

With USB-C the steps are:

  1. Plug it in

In typical Apple fashion this is the only port on their laptop and will only be compatible with older devices if you use an adapter (try having that talk with your kids).

typeCexample

Image Source: Apple Insider

Probably this will start cropping up as an option on other laptops later this year, but should you worry now about all the old USB drives you have lying around? (Hint: NO).

USB Type-A (the kind you’re probably most familiar with if you’ve ever used a flash drive) has been around for nearly two decades (my first computer that had it was purchased in 2003). This means the vast majority of computers you will ever encounter in the world will still use Type-A for a long time to come, and it will probably take years for Type-C to take over the marketplace to the point where you could reliably use those drives elsewhere. The new MacBook lists for a base price of $1200 so only your hipster friends with money will use these anyway.

You’re better off buying a good USB 3.0/3.1 drive which does have considerably better write speeds than 2.0 (though not the order of magnitude change in practical use that most people claim). 3.0 flash drives are better at running programs than a 2.0 flash drive (closer to what you’d get with a portable hard drive though still slower). And they’re only a couple of bucks more at places like MicroCenter (good USB 3.0 32GB for about $12).

And though I know there are some under the hood changes allowing for some potentially faster protocols in Type-C, for right now you’re really only saving the five seconds you’ve been spending trying to plug in a device the wrong way.

And foreplay’s the best part anyway 🙂

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The Battle of Burning The Page For $9.99

The eBook revolution is upon us. Have you chosen a side?

Burning the Page by Jason Merkoski is a chronicle of the early days of this war, namely the creation of the Kindle, and the eReaders to follow. If you can get past the first 5% where Merkoski takes credit for the first online eBook, and brags about how he was uniquely placed to be the first eBook evangelist, then you are presented not only with the history of a device, but a fundamental change in reading.

Even though he was an “eBook evangelist” for years, Merkoski is a lover of physical books. Each chapter centers on a piece of the history of the eBook through Merkoski’s five years at Amazon, as well as his predictions for the future of eBooks. But each chapter ends with a look back to some artifact of the past that will be lost, whether it’s found artifacts in books, the smell of musty pages and ink, or even just bookmarks. Merkoski describes emotionally the process required to scan in a physical book, which in nearly all cases is destructive to the original. Though he calls the eBook revolution a “bloodless” revolution, it’s clear that he is not ambivalent to the blood spilled in torn spines and burned pages.

But Merkoski loves his technology as well, though ironically he seems to think of the Kindle as a cold soulless device. A number of his predictions center around ways to make eReaders more like physical books, whether it’s physical\digital pages to turn, or covers that are shown on a screen in the front. Still he loves a good device unboxing:

“Unboxing is a new voyeuristic phenomenon that’s erotic and technical at the same time. It’s tech pornography. It’s as if we desire total carnal knowledge of our consumer electronics goods.”

Sounds a bit like a guy who hasn’t seen the real thing in a while.

Merkoski does believe reading will become more social. Whether it’s crowd-sourced travel or recipe books, to readers contributing to what happens next to our main character, writing and reading may become more of a social endeavor. In fact, Burning the Page may be one of the first social eBooks. Each chapter ends with a hyperlink to take you to Merkoski’s own site to continue the discussion online.

For a view of the eBook revolution outside of Amazon’s walled garden, look no further than Publisher’s Weekly’s “The Battle for 9.99.” Compiled from court documents and evidence in the current Apple price fixing case, this short Kindle single details Amazon’s loss-leading eBook pricing practices, and the steps the major publishers took to fight back. Perhaps some blood was spilled in the eBook fight after all.

I think as a writer starting out at the beginning of the eBook era, these books present an interesting history of how we got to the current eBook climate, and where we might be going. Personally I think the book will always exist in some form like it does today. The best writing and ideas come from structure, and I don’t think a book written by committee would fare any better than a horse designed by one. But eBooks are here to stay and for less than $9.99 you can get a view from two prominent sides.

Burning the Page – 4 out of 5

The Battle for $9.99 – 4.5 out of 5

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What’s Making Me Happy #3

Thanks everyone at the blog and Facebook for your condolences on the passing of my grandfather earlier this week. It really means a lot to me and my family 🙂

I thought I’d end the week with a round of what’s making me happy. We all have hard weeks from time to time, and I think it’s important to think about the things that still bring a smile to our faces.

1) When I’ve needed a laugh, old SNL’s have been there, particularly this sketch from 06-07 (Hugh Laurie):

SNL: Ghosts

2) And speaking of SNL there’s this Fresh Air interview with Bill Hader (my favorite cast member). Stefon!

3) I finally beat System Shock 2 on Sunday (as my sore back will attest). I’ll post a 13 years later review sometime next week, but key word AWESOME! And gross. Really really gross.

4) Apple’s patent victory over Samsung may actually help Microsoft sell more of the Surface. Ah, irony. And seriously you can’t patent rounded rectangles, zooming with your fingers, or tablets in general. Star Trek has had you beat for years!

5) I’ve started Chapter 5/6 of my “Secret” Non-Fiction project. Two months til release! Crunch time!

6) And speaking of secrets, here’s a new wrinkle. I’ve been reading a certain YA novel published 50 years ago (and loving it!) Who wrote it? Not going to tell you. Which book? Guess. Whatsit about? You have all the clues you need.

7) And lastly, I had a good visit with my Aunt this weekend. My wife and I took her to dinner at the Olive Garden and we got her to laugh. I tried a new beer (Peroni) which I daresay is better than Heineken, and had some Italian sausage in the birthplace of DiRusso’s. Mostly we just talked, which is something we don’t get to do a lot. It’s been a hard week, but there are still many special people in my life (including all of you).

Have a good weekend! God bless! And see you on labor-dabor day!

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Are eBooks and Hardbacks the same product?

REMINDER: I’ll be posting the compiled story of “Baby You Just Got Slapped” on Friday at 12pm. That means you have less than 24 hours to make your continuation of the story. Don’t be shy, keep the story going. Thanks!

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The recent DOJ filing against Apple and five publishers is garnering a lot of negative reaction from the publishing community. Three of the five publishers involved chose to settle, others chose to fight, but the opponent they’re all talking about is not the DOJ, but Amazon.

As I discussed last month the Amazon pricing model of encouraging prices between $2.99 – $9.99 is seen by some as predatory pricing. Amazon sells eBooks at a loss in order to gain market share, then at some date when they have cornered the market they can set whatever price they want. Apple, on the other hand chose the agency models, which allowed publishers to set the price and prevented other places from selling the book at a discount. One of the comments on these stories said that this method uses eBooks to subsidize the print publishing industry, which I think speaks to a larger question.

Are eBooks and printed books the same product?

It’s obvious that eBooks have had an impact on print sales, the closing of Borders being one of many examples. But just because eBooks are taking market share away from their paper cousins, does that mean they are part of the same market?

When people talk about their love of the printed word it’s in the heirloom sense. I love the smell of the pages, the tactile feel of the object in my hands, writing notes in the margins, and even passing down treasured books. After all, a printed book is a thing that can last for hundreds of years. Even non-collectors probably have a book or two in their collection that is at least 50 years old, before eBooks were a twinkle in anyone’s eye.

eBooks, on the other hand, are a digital format. Some formats have persisted for decades, believe it or not the CD was first on the scene in 1982, and DVDs have been prevalent since 1997. Still, most technology becomes obsolete within a few years, and certainly within one’s lifetime. I have a fairly extensive digital library, and I take steps to update and convert it to new formats, but something in me doubts that a book I buy from Amazon will last my whole life. Additionally, eBooks have no resale value. A book on my shelf is worth something to me if I take it down to Half Price Books.

But the most important thing to understand about eBooks is that they are a different technology. The printed word has been a method of conveying knowledge and fantasy for centuries. eBooks are not the same thing. Some are just text, but at a minimum most Amazon Kindle books are also an audiobook with Text-to-speech technology. eBooks contain links which can take you out onto the web, or function as an app.

Take a pop-up book for example. You pull a tab, and something springs up from the page. eBooks can do that and more. Readers can interact with the story in ways that were never before possible. An eBook is a webpage, a CD, an app and a book all rolled into one. A printed book is something you can interact with wherever you are, without paying for data plans. It’s something you can pass on to your grandchildren, and it ages with you.

Maybe books and eBooks used to be the same thing, but they aren’t anymore. The publishing industry is evolving. eBooks provide a way for independent authors to get stories out directly, for people to carry entire libraries with them at a time, and for new ways of creating. Physical books need to evolve too. Maybe *gasp* not every author is worth having a persistent object made for them. I want to see my books in print, to have that heirloom for myself, but I don’t really care how people read me, as long as they read me.

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Did We Win? Maybe.

According to last month’s report from the Fair Labor Association, one of the biggest problems at Foxconn is the amount of overtime worked by each employee. The average worker can put in as much as 80 hours of overtime a month, or a 60 hour work week. Chinese law states that overtime is limited to 36 hours a month, or 9 hours a week on average. FLA also found that many were not being compensated at the overtime rate of “time and a half” or 150% of hourly salary.

As a result Foxconn has pledged to increase salaries by 16 to 25% by Mid 2013, and to comply with Chinese law and reduce overtime to 9 hours a week. Some Foxconn employees think the reduction in overtime is too drastic, saying they’d be willing to work 60 hours of overtime a month, or 15 hours a week.

Given the numbers flying around I thought it would be helpful to provide some context. Like any good math student I’ve shown my work, and I’ll state my assumptions:

  • I’m defining X to be the average hourly salary of a Foxconn employee.
  • I’m assuming the 16-25% pay increase is to the base salary (i.e. the amount paid for 40 hours of work per week).
  • I have calculated figures for Foxconn previously complying with Chinese overtime (150%) as well as if they did not. It’s important to remember that if Foxconn did not compensate for overtime then that is money they legally owe their employees.
  • I’m showing the figures here for 9 hours overtime pay, I did calculations for 15 hours which you can see here.

If Foxconn did not pay overtime before, then the average worker should experience a 3.4% – 11.5% gain in earnings under a 9 hour overtime policy. However, they would experience a 4.5% – 11.3% loss in earnings if they had been paid what they were owed for the illegal overtime.

If overtime was previously compensated then the average hourly pay for a worker working 60 hours a week would be 1.17X (or 1.17 times base hourly salary). If they were not paid for overtime then their hourly rate would be 1X. Under the new system workers can earn anywhere from 1.27X to 1.36X for 9 hours compensated overtime.

If Foxconn had previously paid overtime, then the cost of their 1.2 million person workforce would be 84 million * X. Otherwise it would be 72 million * X. If Foxconn’s budget for workers remains unchanged they can hire as many as 135.6 thousand new workers if they had previously paid overtime. Otherwise they would need to lay off almost as many or increase their salary budget.

Bottom line is this:

  • If Foxconn had been paying what they owed employees, then employees will earn less than they could before. If, however, they were not compensated, then they will be bringing home more money.
  • Average hourly salaries have increased significantly under the new system, even with reduced overtime.
  • Foxconn will have to raise its budget for employee compensation if they had not previously been paying overtime. Otherwise they can afford to hire the “tens of thousands” of new employees without increasing the budget.
  • If Foxconn did not compensate workers for overtime, then I think punitive damages for unpaid overtime should also be leveled against them.

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Ancient Computing

The desktop PC is dead! Tablets are the future!

This certainly seems to be the trend of the last few years, but John C. Dvorak’s column in this month’s PC Magazine got me thinking again about how baffling it is that people want to replace their desktops with tablets.

Dvorak’s argument is mainly based on size and interface, but what baffles me even more is power.

My netbook is one of my favorite computers, in part because I can take it and write wherever I go. But it terms of raw specifications it’s speed, hard drive capacity, and memory are equivalent or less than what I could get 10 years ago (when I bought my first desktop).

ASUS EEE Netbook
Processor: 1.6 GHz (can be “overclocked” to 1.7GHz)
RAM: 1GB
HD: 144GB (real size)

Dell Dimension 5500
Processor: P4 2.53GHz
RAM: 512MB (RAM upgrades were available just never purchased)
HD: 55.8GB (initially, now has two 111GB drives in the tower)

Now I’m not saying my netbook is a bad computer. In addition to being ultra-portable, it has a VGA-out I can easily hook to my TV for a bigger screen, and an SD Card slot that allows me to add even more capacity (I have 15GB in there at the moment). But, it doesn’t have an optical drive (unless I hook an external to it), its speakers are not very loud, and its spec makes playing any PC game made after 2000-2001 virtually impossible. It’ll run Photoshop or the GIMP just fine, but the 10.4″ screen is tiny for the detail oriented work involved in photo editing.

And tablets can be even further back:

Kindle Fire
Processor: 1GHz (Dual core but not always utilized)
RAM: 512MB
HD: 8GB (really seems to be only about 5GB for my content)

iPad2
Processor: 1GHz (Dual core but not always utilized)
RAM: 512MB
HD: 16/32/64GB

*Spec comparison from here

Both are web browser capable, but stacked up even against my netbook they’re slow. Both can stream video, but my Fire seems to have syncing issues when streaming Netflix.

Now I love my Fire too. It’s one of the best tools for reading books besides the real thing, and it is one of my most mobile ways to view the internet. I can’t hook it to my TV, but the weight is comfortable to hold in my hand (though not for anything longer than 30 min).

The iPad has Photoshop and untold numbers of Apps, and the 10″ size gets the closest to a comfortable typing experience I’ve had on a tablet, but not as comfortable as my netbook’s keyboard, or any USB keyboard you pick up at MicroCenter for $4. (You can get real keyboards for the iPad but they cost you more in the neighborhood of $100).

If I want to play Lego Star Wars or The Witcher or any serious game, tablets and netbooks don’t cut it. If I want to have access to my whole music library wherever I go, Amazon’s cloud doesn’t cut it (just try streaming music at a BN and you’ll run up against bandwidth limits real quick). Encode a CD, better at least use a laptop.

There’s a place for new devices used in concert with conventional desktops, but until the power of tablet devices catches up to where desktops are now they won’t be the only computer I own.

After all, I don’t want to just live in the past.

Note: I like hybrid devices like the ASUS tablet and some of the concepts I’ve read about for Windows 8. I could see replacing my netbook with an ASUS tablet, if it ran an OS that could run my Windows Games and DOS emulators.

Additional Note: Apps are just software! Your Angry Birds or your Cut The Rope are like the flash games of yesteryear (though I love making that little monster happy)!

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