SAST 06

I need to close out a few open issues from recent blog posts, so it’s time for a Short Attention Span Theater.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a poor QA/good customer service issue I had with the Project Fi Travel Trolley.

I’m pleased to report that Swyft customer support came through with the promised travel socks. And they’re just as silly as we had hoped.

Let’s be clear: these aren’t the full height compression socks designed to prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis. These are ankle socks. But they have little rubberized bumps on the underside to prevent slippage when you take your shoes off to go through the TSA’s scanners. If you follow the often-quoted advice to take off your shoes on the plane and walk up and down the aisle a couple of times during the flight, they should be fine for that. They even seem rugged enough to wear to bed so you can stagger into the bathroom in the middle of the night without having to hunt for slippers.

Most importantly, though, they’re black, they’re fuzzy–kind of snuggly, in fact–and they’ve got a Project Fi logo on the side. Amusing. And I intend to wear them next time I fly.

And I will test the Travel Trolley again.

Moving on.

Last Thursday, I mused a little about the Mariners’ attempt to get above .500 for the first time this year.

Not only did they win Thursday night behind rookie Andrew Moore, but they also won Friday behind veteran Felix Hernandez.

Friday, they also sent Moore back to the minors. Weird game, baseball.

No, it wasn’t because they were displeased with his performance. Whoever made up the schedule decided the Ms needed two days off this week. Never mind that the All-Star Break is less than two weeks away and will bring almost everyone in the league a four-day holiday.

But with both Monday and Thursday off, the Ms didn’t really need five starting pitchers, so Moore went down to AAA. Chances are he’ll be back with the Mariners sooner rather than later.

But I digress. After that victory Friday the Ms were two games over .500. Celebrations ensued.

Saturday and Sunday, they lost to Houston, the team with the best record in baseball. Tuesday and Wednesday, they lost to Philadelphia, the team with the worst record in baseball.

Just like that, they’re back in familiar territory, two games short of respectability.

But that’s the Mariners for you. Ever since Houston came over from the National League, the Mariners have had trouble beating them. And losses breed.

Even with the losses, though, the Mariners are still only three games out of the Wild Card. Of course, the are eight other teams at three games out or less, so it’s a bit of an uphill climb.

Based on their performance so far this season, I expect the Mariners to bounce around .500 for the next few weeks, until they go to Houston July 17. That’ll put them in a short decline. They’ll recover and get back to .500 or a bit more in August, make a serious run at the Wild Card–and then go into a nose dive when the Astros come to Seattle September 4.

Because Mariners.

Moving on.

Apple is promoting the new iPad Pro it introduced earlier this month. The commercials are in heavy rotation during baseball games.

That’s expected. What isn’t is how stereotyped the ads are. The emo girl who hates everything. The power addict who literally explodes with pleasure. The ghost of a dead laptop.

Really, Apple? If you can’t give us a revolutionary computer–and let’s face it, the iPad Pro may be a heck of a good computer, but it’s neither years ahead of the competition nor unique–can’t you at least give us a revolutionary ad or two? One that doesn’t rely on the same easy compartmentalization we’ve seen in the media for far too long?

Applesauce

Back in June, Apple held its annual developers’ conference, with sneak previews of the autumn software releases. Here we are at the nominal beginning of fall, so it’s time for them to remind us about the software and update us on their hardware plans.

Spoiler alert: There aren’t a whole lot of surprises.

The Apple Watch has a outrageous 97% customer satisfaction score. I’ll just note in passing that there’s a well-documented psychological tendency for people to convince themselves they like something they paid too much for: a way to convince themselves that eating peanut butter for every meal for six months is worth it. Not that I’d ever suggest the Apple Watch is overpriced.

Anyway, WatchOS 2 is coming, and with it is the ability to run apps on the watch, rather than on your iPhone with the watch as a secondary display. Yes, now you can have Facebook Messenger on your wrist. Are you excited? How about iTranslate: talk to your wrist and hear what you said in more than 90 languages. Hopefully you can select one of the 90+, rather than having to sit through the whole list… We’ll find out on the 16th.

Moving from the wrist to the forklift, Apple’s got the iPad Pro. It’s 12.9 inches diagonally. 12.9. I complain about the awkward size of a nine-inch tablet, and the iPad Pro is more than a third larger. Let’s face it: this isn’t going to be competing with other tablets. Apple clearly sees it as a laptop alternative, as witness their claim that its CPU is “Desktop-class”. And it only weighs 1.57 pounds. (Hint: the original iPad weighed 1.54 pounds, and it was very hard to hold for more than a few minutes.) But Apple doesn’t really expect you to hold it. It’s obvious that they expect you to set it on a desk. With an external keyboard. Oh, and and “Apple Pencil”–that’s a stylus to those of us who believe that pencils should be filled with graphite. So, if you want a small laptop that runs iOS, the iPad Pro is your baby. Starting at $799 in November. Plus $169 for the keyboard and $99 for the styluspencil.

If that’s a bit steep and/or heavy for you, there’s also going to be an iPad Mini 4–think iPad Air 2 in the Mini form-factor. Although they didn’t say so, I presume that the Mini 4 will be able to handle the full multitasking capabilities of iOS 9.

As expected, Apple announced a new Apple TV box. Television, it seems, is no longer about shows. It’s about apps. Sorry, that doesn’t make any sense to me. If I want apps on TV, I’ll hook my iPad to the set. I use the TV to watch TV. But then, we all know I’m an old curmudgeon.

Anyway, aside from the obligatory app store, the new Apple TVs have a remote with a “touch surface” (I believe most of us would call it a trackpad and a microphone for voice control. Yup, Siri’s in your TV now. All part of “tvOS”. Because Apple didn’t have enough operating systems already. Branding aside, tvOS is a variant of iOS. “Universal” apps are no longer just iPhone and iPad, now they can include an Apple TV version as well. No wonder iOS 9 only installs the portion of a universal app that’s relevant to the device. If you can’t wait to play games and shop from your TV, you can get your fix in late October.

Of course there are new iPhones. What would September be without new iPhones? This is an odd-numbered year, so just as the Giants won’t win the World Series, Apple won’t introduce a major phone upgrade. We’re getting the 6s and 6s Plus. Apparently the most important new feature is that they come in “Rose gold” in addition to the usual silver, gold, and “space gray”–at least, that’s the first feature Apple announced. They also have “3D Touch”, meaning they can tell how hard you press and behave differently for different pressures. Main use seems to be to let the user preview apps or functions and take action without actually opening the app–for example, read an e-mail and delete it without opening the Mail app.

What else? Faster Touch ID, 50% more pixels in the camera. The camera can now take 4K video. Better buy a new TV that can handle 4K–although it’s worth noting that the new Apple TV boxes don’t do 4K. Oh dear. The new phones can use the screen as a flash for selfies. I guess it’s the logical next step after using your phone as a flashlight. “Live photos” include a little pre- and post-photo information, so you can get a bit of movement. Sounds like the old 3D prism images that move when you look at them from different angles.

Apparently Apple recognizes that the “s” phones aren’t major advances. Prices will be the same as the current 6 and 6 Plus are now. The old ones will get a $100 price cut. Or you can buy on an installment plan directly from Apple and trade up to the newest phone every year. I’m sure the carriers are thrilled with that. Preorders open this weekend, phones will be out on the 25th.

If you’re not planning to buy a new device, but want iOS 9, it’ll be out on the 16th.

All in all, Apple’s announcements are what everyone expected. If you’re married to the Apple infrastructure, you’re excited. Otherwise, it’s largely a shrug.

I can’t see the Apple TV taking a big chunk of the market away from the Rokus, Fire TVs, and Chromecasts of the world, given the cost and the continued availability of the previous generation Apple TV at half the price. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the future of television is apps. I hope not.

And I really don’t see the iPad Pro taking significant market share away from the low-end Windows laptops or the low-end MacBooks. The iPad Pro isn’t that different than Microsoft’s Surface tablets in terms of capabilities relative to it’s laptop and desktop counterparts, and Surface is barely a blip on the public’s radar.

No Safety

Does it seem like there has been an unusually large number of highly-publicized security issues lately?

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen two different “Take over or destroy an Android phone” vulnerabilities. With, of course, the obligatory notation that the majority of vulnerable systems will never be patched because carriers don’t want to test and deploy OS updates for hundreds of models of phones they don’t sell anymore.

So then we get the mandatory calls for everyone to switch to iOS*. Because of course, Apple doesn’t release OSes that can crash when they receive a text message. Or stop supporting older devices. (For anyone who has trouble detecting sarcasm in print, yes, a couple of months ago, a bug that allowed many iOS+hardware combinations to be crashed via SMS was widely discussed. And the forthcoming iOS 9 will be the first release in quite some time that doesn’t orphan any Apple hardware.

* Not, I’m pleased to see, from mainstream media, only from the most vocal, least thoughtful Apple fans. Maybe there’s hope for the press.

Then there’s the widely-reported story that recent model Fiat Chrysler vehicles are hackable over the Internet. And Chrysler’s decision to distribute the fix by mailing USB drives to car owners. (Colin Neagle has a nice piece in NetworkWorld on why this is such a bad idea*.) Realistically, Fiat Chrysler can’t be the only automaker distributing vulnerable software. Remember: Internet connections are two-way. If your car stereo supports Pandora or your GPS downloads live traffic data, you had better hope the manufacturer has included good defenses against attack.

* Although Mr. Neagle missed one scenario. After decades of being told to reinstall software (and even operating systems–yes, I’m looking at you, Microsoft) to fix problems, how many of those Jeep owners are going to decide their car isn’t running right, and reinstall the patch? I don’t think it would do much harm to reinstall it over itself–though I can imagine scenarios where that could cause a problem–but what about six months or a year down the road, after the dealer has upgraded the car’s software. Does Chrysler’s software update system guard against downgrades?)

And the vulnerabilities keep coming. Ars Technica has a couple of security-related stories on the front page today. Another automotive issue: a security researcher has found a way to hijack the remote starting capability in GM’s OnStar-equipped cars. It’s not a vulnerability in the car’s software; the problem is in the smartphone apps. Until GM releases a fix, they’re advising car owners not to use the remote start capability.

And it’s not just cars and phones that have vulnerabilities. An easy-to-exploit crash in Bind* was just patched. Of course, just because it’s been patched doesn’t mean the fixed version has been deployed on all–or even most–servers. Or that all of the related bugs have been found and fixed.

* Bind is the most commonly used DNS software–the tool that translates easy to remember names like, say, koiscribblings.com into the numeric codes that computers use to locate each other. The ability to easily crash Bind is the ability to disable large chunks of the Internet by making it impossible for individual computers to talk together.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

So are there more vulnerabilities being reported than in the past? Or are they just getting more publicity?

I’m not trying to suggest that we’re all doomed. But it’s clear that the people creating all of our spiffy new gadgets are thinking “spiffy” first and “secure” much further down the priority list. That means it’s up to us, the consumers, to think about security. If you decide a bluetooth-enabled door lock is too risky, don’t buy it–and send the company that makes it an e-mail explaining why. Same thing for your next car, burglar alarm, or refrigerator purchase. Make your own safety and privacy one of your criteria, and tell the losers where they fell short. The only way to move security up the priority list is to make the connection between poor security and lost sales explicit.

Some People Never Learn

Bet you thought I was going to talk about the Apple Watch.

You’re almost right. Apple didn’t really say anything new yesterday. OK, so now we know when we can buy the watch (preorders start today, actual orders and in-store purchases start in two weeks). We also know how much it’ll cost (anywhere from $350* to well over $10,000, depending on model and features). Everything else was revealed at last September’s “event” or has been discussed ad nauseum since then.

* OK, OK, $349. You can use the extra dollar to feed the parking meter while you stand on line outside the Apple Store on the twenty-fourth.

I’m still less than fully-whelmed. I’m sticking with my Christmas Kidizoom watch–thanks, Erin!–until I see a feature that will benefit me, rather than just Apple’s bottom line. That shouldn’t take more than three or four iterations of the Apple Watch. By which time, I’ll have charged my Kidizoom less than fifty times–have fun tethering yourselves to yet another charger, oh lovers of all things Apple. Yes, I’m getting more than two months per charge. The Apple Watch is expected to get eighteen hours–in a device that’s intended to monitor your health.

What I did find interesting about Apple’s “Spring Ahead” event was how tone-deaf they are. Their customers have been complaining for years about having to delete their own data to make room on their devices for iOS upgrades. So what did Apple do with yesterday’s iOS 8.2 update? They included an Apple Watch app which is installed on every iPhone that takes the upgrade. Wait, it gets better: like other critical Apple-installed apps (Game Center, iBooks, and Clock, for example) the app cannot be uninstalled. Didn’t Apple learn anything from last year’s U2 fiasco? Even better, if you don’t have an Apple Watch, the app will display an advertisement.

Oh, well. At least the Apple Watch app doesn’t get installed on iPads and iPods. Mind you, there’s no reason why it should be on those devices, since the Apple Watch only works with iPhones. But this is Apple, after all. If they can put an non-deletable advertisement on the phones, why shouldn’t they put it on other devices as well. After all, if you’ve got an iPad, you really ought to have an iPhone too, right? And as long as you’re picking up that must-have iPhone 6 Plus, you can pick up a gotta-have-it watch as well…

More tone-deafness: Apple finally realized that the $99 price tag on their Apple TV device wasn’t competing well against the $50 Roku, $39 Amazon Fire TV, and $35 Chromecast. So they drastically reduced the price: effective immediately, you can pick up an Apple TV for only $69. Yes, Apple has always cost more, justifying it with claims of “It just works” and “It’s aesthetically awesome”. Unfortunately, their competition also “just works”, and aesthetics are a personal matter. At this point, Apple TV’s only real distinguishing feature is the ability to be a receiver for AirPlay. Is that really worth a 40% price premium to the average consumer?

An Apple a Day

Here we are at Apple Announcement Day again. Ready for my usual cynical take on the latest hype out of Cupertino? Too bad, you’re getting it anyway.

Apple had three and a half things to announce. Let’s take them in order. For the record, all quotes are from Apple’s “Event” as reported by Ars Technica. If there are any misquotes, please blame Ars, not me. I’ll take responsibility for my misinterpretations, though.

As everyone expected, we’ve got two new iPhones, the 6 and the 6 Plus. They’re bigger than any previous iPhone and have have higher resolution screens than any previous iPhone. Will someone please wake me up when the size wars are over?

Apps written specifically for the new phones can use the extra screen space to display more information, while apps written for the iPhone 5 (and presumably older phones as well) will automatically scale up and just look larger. I’m not sure how well that’s actually going to work out. The aspect ratios on the new phones are slightly different, and neither one is the same as the iPhone 5, let alone earlier devices. Given Apple’s horror of visual sloppiness, I suspect they’ll work around it by turning off a few pixels at the edge of the display.

The new phones will support landscape orientation. With the capability there, users are going to demand that apps use it. That means developers who support the new phones’ screens will have to code for four new resolutions, not two. Lucky them! More new icons, more new screen layouts, more QA engineers trying to figure out how to do more testing in less time. And, of course, more new customer complaints. Fun!

Hey, here’s a new feature that actually is innovative, as far as I can tell. Apple designed the new phones with an eye towards one-handed operation (and I’ll skip the obvious jokes here). One of the key aspects is “Reachability”: double-tap the TouchID button and the screen will scroll down to bring the top half into reach. Nice idea, but I wonder how easy it will be to double-tap the button with the same hand you’re holding the phone with.

Nor do I envy Apple’s QA team, who have to explore the interaction of Reachability with landscape orientation. One hopes that when the phone is rotated, the screen slides horizontally, not vertically… For the sake of the poor third-party developers and QA, I really, really, hope that the OS handles this functionality transparently. If it needs to be coded and tested in every app, there are going to be a lot of missed shipping dates.

There are, of course, tweaks to the camera. Most of them sound incremental, but I do like the sound of the optical stabilization on the 6 Plus: the lens will actually move to counter your hand jiggle. Should make for a whole new level of sharpness in drunken selfies.

The new phones will be up for pre-order this Friday at prices ranging from $199 for a 16GB 6 to $499 for a fully-loaded 128GB 6 Plus. After the obligatory crash of Apple’s servers, expect scam sales to show up on eBay Saturday. Actual shipments will start the following Friday.

Oh, and iOS 8 will start going out to customers a week from tomorrow. Developers and QA folks who want to see how your apps behave under the GM build*, keep waiting. It’s not available yet. Have fun with your last-minute checkouts.

* For those of you who are not steeped in the technological tea, “GM” has nothing to do with the auto maker. It stands for “Golden Master,” and it’s the final beta release, which is supposed to be identical to what actually goes to customers. Sort of the software equivalent of showing the final draft of an e-mail to a friend before you send it to your boss. Apple hopes the developers examining the GM build will find the show-stopper bugs, just like you hope your friend will find the typo that changes your purchase request into a grievous insult.

Moving on.

Announcement Number Two is “Apple Pay”. Apple reminds us that credit cards are insecure and inconvenient. Instead, use your new iPhone 6 to store all of your credit cards and bank accounts, and pay by tapping the phone against a kiosk.

That’s gotta be more secure, right? Especially because Apple has been “working with retailers like Target” to enable Apple Pay for online purchases too!

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the security of your information is only as good as (a) the security of your phone (we all know that there are never any security vulnerabilities in Apple’s software, right) and (b) the retailers and credit card processors (nobody could possibly crack the security on Target’s servers. Or Home Depot’s. Or Visa’s.)

Seriously, all this does is remove one point of vulnerability (the card reader) in exchange for adding a new one (the phone and its secure storage) while increasing the attractiveness of the credit card processors as targets for hacking.

Moving on again.

Then we have Apple’s most-eagerly awaited announcement. The iWatch. Oh, wait. It’s the “Apple Watch”. Kudos to Tim Cook and the gang for not forcing another “capital letter in the middle of the name” name on our long-suffering spell-checkers.

Regardless of the name, it’s coming in early 2015 at prices “starting at $349”–we’ll find out what the upper range is later. Don’t expect it to be cheap: one version of the Apple Watch has an 18K gold case, “designed to be twice as hard as standard gold”. Apparently Apple’s signed some kind of deal with Mother Nature to produce unusually hard gold. Nice!

While your figuring out how to finance your watch, don’t forget to budget for a new phone. Unless you’ve got an iPhone 5 or newer, you’ll need to pick up an iPhone, because the Apple Watch isn’t a standalone. It needs the phone to do anything, apparently. Fortunately, when the 6 and 6 Plus go on sale, the price of a 5s will drop to $99, and for the real cheapskates among us, the 5c will drop to $0–with the usual two-year contract, of course.

Even if you’re a cheapskate and get the entry-level Apple Watch and a free 5c, expect to experience “new intimate ways to communicate with your wrist”. I don’t know about you, but I don’t let my wrist speak on my behalf.

There also a “new way for you to connect intimately with others.” Tap your watches together to share information. Lovely. So much more intimate than talking…

It’s got a new paradigm for interaction: you twist the crown! Never mind that people have been interacting with their watches by twisting the crown for at least 150 years. It’s no longer about setting the time. Now the crown is for scrolling and zooming! Oh, and clicking to return to the home screen. A revolution in UI! There’s a lot of twisting involved, it seems. No word from Apple on how (or even if) the Apple Watch accommodates lefties, or anyone who prefers to wear their watch on their right arm.

Of course, the Apple Watch has a variety of sensors built in to monitor your health. Apple wants to keep you healthy so you can continue to buy their merchandise. The watch will monitor your activity, estimate calories burned, track how often you stand up, and suggest “personal, realistic, achievable [exercise] goals”. Oh, and share the information it gathers with the Health app on your phone so that your health-care provider can stay informed about your progress.

I’d be the first to admit that I could stand to lose some weight, but I don’t want my watch nagging me to get more exercise. I’m a lazy slug, yes, but if my watch starts interrupting my thought processes to remind me to stand up and walk around the office, it’s the watch that’s going to get sprinkled with salt.

Apple also took pains to talk about third-party apps that are already in development for the Apple Watch. First on their list: Starwood Hotels. Their app will let your watch work as your room key. Um. Yay? What’s the range of this thing, anyway? I’d prefer that my door not get unlocked every time I walk to the bathroom.

Oh, and don’t forget that Apple Pay works with your Apple Watch. Twirl that crown to select your credit card, and tap the watch against the payment kiosk to pay for your groceries. Careful! Don’t get too close to the kiosk while you’re bagging. Wouldn’t want to pay for the next guy’s groceries too!

Hey, can I tap my watch against yours on the subway to share credit card information?

Moving along, one last time.

The half announcement was, of course, music-related. Because “music is in Apple’s DNA.” U2’s new album, “Sounds of Innocence”, is an iTunes exclusive from now until mid-October. And it’s free. Or it will be whenever they put it up. Despite the statement that it will be “available throughout the day” I’m not seeing it yet. No worries, it sounds like it’ll be free at least until the Apple exclusive expires. Whether it’s worth the price is another question, but I’ll leave that to fans of the band.

WWDC ’14

It’s June again, and you know what that means. No, not time for nude horseback riding. I mean, I guess you could do that if you want, but it’s not what I had in mind. No, it’s June, and that means the world’s attention is squarely on WWDC, Apple’s annual developer conference. For those of you who don’t care about Apple or Apple products, WWDC is when Apple typically announces what’s coming in the next major release of their computer and mobile operating systems.

Last year, the big news for OS X was that Apple had run out of big cats, and new versions of the operating system would be named for locations. I went out on a limb, and predicted that this year’s release would be “Emeryville”. I’m delighted to announce that I was absolutely… What? Oh, darn. Sorry, this year’s release is “Yosemite”. Note that the version number is 10.10, meaning this release is officially known as “oh ess ten ten dot ten”. It’s got a nice beat, but I don’t think you can dance to it.

Moving on.

Aside from the new name, what is Yosemite bringing to the desktop and laptop user? Lots of visual cues taken from last year’s iOS 7 release. Transparency. Slimmer fonts. Flattened icons. Other than that, most of the changes seem to be aimed at users who also have an iPhone. Apple is touting “Continuity,” a package of enhancements to help integrate iOS with OS X: text messages can be relayed from an iOS device to your desktop, and the desktop can now place phone calls over an iPhone, as long as the iPhone is on the same local network. Handy, maybe, but not exactly earthshaking–which may be just as well, given ongoing concerns about seismic activity in California…

As has become the case in recent years, most of the excitement is over on the iOS side. Apple is billing the upcoming enhancements to iOS 8 as being focused on “inclusion”. Let’s take a quick look.

Users can respond to notifications without leaving their current app. The keyboard is now context-sensitive, learning words and phrases that users frequently use and offering them as suggestions. Great, not only will I still have auto-correct changing my emails to gibberish, the keyboard will be learning the gibberish and writing incoherent messages for me. A great time saver: I won’t have to do any work to confuse the heck out people. Oh, and apparently Apple is opening up the keyboard API to allow third-party keyboards to replace the default keyboard. Fans of Android “swipe” and “chording” keyboards can look forward to Apple ports.

Hey, there’s a new public API called “Healthkit”! (I keep reading it as “Heathkit”–talk about a blast from the past…) The intent of Healthkit is to allow manufacturers of fitness apps and gadgets to easily integrate their products with iOS and share date between apps. Nice, especially if you have multiple health-related devices and/or want your iPhone to nag you about your lack of exercise and high blood pressure.

In addition to “Healthkit,” we’re also getting “HomeKit,” an Apple-designed set of protocols for home automation. We talked about this last November. I had some serious concerns about the desirability of hooking all of my gadgets, including the home security system, into my smartphone. By making the functionality part of the OS and opening it up to third parties, Apple is doing nothing to make me feel better about the whole process. Remember that security is only as good as its weakest link. If an attacker can compromise any of the devices linked this way, they’ve got a path to everything else on the system. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that HomeKit is going to be a very popular target for attackers.

More inter-app communication. Currently, apps can register themselves as able to open specific kinds of files (for example, an app can register as handling pdf files, and other apps can then offer to open pdf files in that app). There aren’t a lot of details on the new functionality so far, but it sounds like apps will be able to register kinds of actions, such as “upload file” or “share image” to be included in the existing context menu.

Oh, hey, another new API! This one is for the TouchID sensor. Third-party apps will be able to use the 5s fingerprint sensor for logins. Hey, former cow-orkers, I’m betting that the first negative review of your apps complaining that you don’t support the sensor will show up about five minutes after iOS 8 is released. (Now that I think about it, given how easy it is to get a beta these days, you may start seeing the complaints even before the release.)

I said Apple is positioning the iOS 8 release as being about inclusion, and that’s arguably true. It’s also about “catch-up”. Many of the non-Continuity features are things that Android and Windows Phone have had for some time already. I’m more impressed with what’s coming in iOS 8 than I was about what we got in iOS 7, but that’s not saying a lot.

Still waiting for Apple to bring us another truly revolutionary innovation.

Eat Hearty!

I think it’s time for another spam post. Sorry, no recipes involving toilet bowl cleaner this time, but we’ve got a few things almost as tasty.

Most of the spam comments showing up these days seem to be pushing designer goods. Or, more likely, counterfeit designer goods. One has to admire their creativity. Today, for example, somebody posted this message: “which are a part of every room because Various spaceships will attack you as you move between planets. and a gorgeous goody bag to take home. Until that happens,.” I’m sure I don’t need to explain that he was selling Michael Kors merchandise. What, you mean it’s not obvious? I thought everyone knew that Michael Kors purses were the perfect shipping container for whatever is left of your body after a spaceship attack.

Then there’s a delightful ode to Jimmy Choo shoes and wallets. Most of it seems to be a paragraph about Supercross motorcycle racing that has been run through an automatic translation a few times too many. This sentence is perhaps most telling:

Anyone new to race cars, in particular bicycles as well as the menstrual cycles, you will have Jimmy Choo store trouble distinguishing forwards and backwards.

Indeed, if you have trouble distinguishing “bi” from “menstrual” when it comes to cycles, you will indeed have trouble. What it all has to do with shoes remains unclear to me.

There was a period of about a week when the spam was dominated by come-ons for payday loans. My favorite? Easy!

Amazon’s too kinda inexplicably stirred the sliding force where the almost ravening ebook readers bouncy?

Ravening ebook readers? Sign me up! Can I borrow enough money to get bouncy with Amazon too?

I admire the honesty of the loan arranger who wanted to assure us that “Loans are the poor-term immediate it’s very casual, rock-steady and identical libertine.” I decided not to refinance the house with him when he went on to note that “The primary borrower along with the co-signer, who is required to be borrowed.” Somehow, I just didn’t think Maggie would appreciate being loaned out.

Loan pitches were followed by online gambling ads. One of the first was from somebody who had a very interesting notion of how gambling works:

Certainly Blackjack will Facilitate the Arse transmission line of the Racetrack operators […] that will wreak them to their terminus.

Well, yes, I can sort of see where he’s going with this. But then he continues:

So cross your fingers, say of sexually abusing his daughter from ages 10 to 11. paypal casino Read the all right incentive is referred to as a tally bonus.

Really? I wonder if Google’s child porn filter team is onto this one.

I think this ad sums up the state of online gambling very well. It read, in its entirety:

Enligt mig är det inte ens värt jobbet att läsa resten av argumenten, det sket sig ju liksom i början.

Translated from the Swedish, that’s “According to me it is not even worth the job to read the rest of the arguments, it crapped out after all, as in the beginning.”

Moving on.

Apparently lip balm is wonderful stuff. “Say good-bye to test anxiety be sure to use a lip balm or chapstick to protect them from cancer.” It protects against cancer and test anxiety? Nice! Where can I get some? Not from this seller, it seems. He’s actually pushing his line of acne removal products. Priorities, man, priorities! Save the world from test anxiety first, then worry about pimples.

Fortunately, there are some advertisers who understand that you catch more flies sell more product with honey than vinegar. This enterprising entrepreneur demonstrates:

You will be truly a beneficial web marketer. Your website filling quickness will be awesome. It seems that you are carrying out every special technique. Furthermore, This belongings tend to be must-see. you must have done an excellent course of action with this theme!

I’m not quite sure what my awesome writing and web marketing skills have to do with the “iPhone app building info” he’s selling, but I’m almost flattered enough to overlook the fact that the sample information on his website is obviously taken straight out of Apple’s iOS development kit.

Finally, as we move deep into the holiday gift-giving season, remember to buy plenty of Ugg boots. After all:

In this, a virus that also causes chicken pox affects the skin and creates bands of blisters which are full of liquid, pus, etc.

I know I want a pair, and I’m sure all of my friends will too!

Open Sesame

I’ve been more than mildly disdainful about biometric security systems (i.e. fingerprint readers such as the one on the Apple 5s) and the security of home automation systems in the past. I’d like to take a couple of minutes to continue that line of thought.

The reason? Apple has just been awarded a patent for a “System and method of determining location of wireless communication devices/persons for controlling/adjusting operation of devices based on the location” Say what? According to the abstract, it’s a method by which multiple servers can sense the position of a phone, tablet, badge, or other such device; the servers can coordinate their information to deduce the location of a particular person, and use that location information to automatically take actions such as turning on lights, unlocking doors, changing thermostats. Such a boon to humanity, who will be freed of the intolerable burden of flipping light switches, turning keys, and pushing buttons!

I’m not even going to start on the idiocy of awarding this patent; let’s just take it as given that the patent system is irretrievably broken at this point. Instead, let’s talk about the idiocy of the patent itself. At least with existing home automation/security systems, the user has to take an affirmative action to make something happen (in other words, they have to hit a button in an app to turn off the alarm and open the garage door). In a system using Apple’s patented technology, they just have to have their iPhone in their pocket when the drive up to the house. So now if I want to break into your house, I don’t need to hack your security system, I just need to steal your phone. In case you hadn’t heard, phone theft is right up at the top of the charts for petty crimes these days.

“But wait!” I hear you cry. “Doesn’t the phone need to be unlocked?” Nope. According to the patent, the “…devices are instructed to send… data… upon satisfaction of particular conditions. For example, a phone can transmit a detection signal each time that its communications are routed to a new cell tower”. Nothing in there about unlocking; to the contrary, in fact: nobody is going to unlock their phone every time they switch towers; chances are they don’t even know when they switch towers (I don’t, certainly, and I’ll bet significant quantities of pretzels that you don’t either.)

It gets even better worse. The patent specifically mentions using the technology to control music players and “any other device for which different types of operation are desired based on whether a person is nearby or not.” I know I always want to have the radio come on to the classic rock station when I walk into the living room — even if Maggie is napping on the couch.

Hey, I’ve got a great idea! Perhaps you’ve heard that Tesco is installing facial scanning technology to allow it to target video advertising to customers based on their age and gender. What if we combine the two technologies? We’ll put a camera in ever room and give the servers the ability to detect who’s there, even if they’re not carrying their phone. Now when I walk into the living room, if Maggie is napping on the couch, the radio doesn’t turn on! Hooray!

Of course, the wireless streams from those cameras can’t possibly be picked up outside the house. No way is anyone going to hack the highly-secure wifi signal and share the hilarious home video of me tripping on the footstool because the system was smart enough not to turn on the lights either.

Other handy features: the system can use calendar events as triggers. If it sees I’ve been invited to a party, it can assume I’m at the party location. Too bad the party sucked and I went home early. If I’m at the party, I can’t be trying to get into the house. Better trigger the alarm! It also learns from past behavior. If it normally takes 15 minutes for me to get home,* and I usually turn the oven on when I get there, it can start pre-heating the oven five minutes after I leave work (yes, our oven does take a while to pre-heat). Too bad I’m going out to dinner tonight (or, since it probably checks my location in transit to be sure I’m coming home, too bad I’m just nuking leftovers tonight.)

* Apparently Apple is not targeting this technology at its own employees. Do you know anyone in the Bay Area whose commute is 15 minutes from logging off the computer to arriving at the front door?

My favorite learned action: “If a person is likely to activate a security system every time he leaves the house, the security system… can be activated upon determination that the person has moved from inside the house to an adjacent area such as a front porch or a garage.” Because of course I want to set the alarm when I step outside in the morning to get the newspaper. Because of course, I’m old-fashioned and still read a newspaper.

Sorry, guys. I’ll stick with flipping light switches and all that primitive nonsense. If nothing else, I can use the exercise.

The Alphabet Post

A Is For Apple

As promised, a few thoughts on Apple’s “a lot to cover” show.

Taking things more or less in the same order Apple announced them, let’s start with OS X Mavericks, the latest iteration of the other operating system: the one that doesn’t run on mobile devices. I can’t comment on the content changes to the OS, as I just don’t use OS X enough, but the early reviews do seem positive. What I found interesting about the announcement was the price. The price of an OS X upgrade has been dropping for the past few years, and now it’s hit bottom. Well, technically, I suppose Apple could start paying users to upgrade, but I’m having trouble coming up with a business model where that would make sense for them. I’m sure the price would have hit zero eventually, but I suspect their hand was pushed a bit by Microsoft releasing Windows 8.1 as a free upgrade. Apple has gone one better than Microsoft by making it a free upgrade for anyone using OS X; Microsoft is still charging those using XP, Vista, and Windows 7 for the upgrade. Granted that the situations aren’t exactly parallel (for one thing, you have to do a clean install, not an upgrade from XP and Vista to Windows 8), but it’s definitely a selling point for Apple that will help them push users to upgrade; historically OS X migration has moved much more slowly than iOS upgrades.

Moving on, we’ve got the new MacBooks. New CPU, longer battery life, slightly lower prices, Retina screens across almost the entire product line. Nothing even close to earthshaking here. This is all about keeping up with the Windows laptop world.

The fancy, redesigned Mac Pro announced back in June will finally go on sale in December. Good news for those wedded to the workstation line, but largely irrelevant to the rest of the world — other than anyone who can’t resist the case design, which Ars has correctly noted is more than a bit reminiscent of a Dalek.

The iLife and iWork software suites have been updated and are now free with the purchase of new Apple hardware. Not a big surprise, considering that they’ve been giving iWork to all purchasers of new iOS devices since last month’s iPhone launches. Apple is moving more and more toward giving away the software and making their money on the add-ons. And why not? It worked well with iTunes: give away the software, make your money selling music, videos, books, and apps. So now they’re pushing the strategy down one level. Expect other developers to follow suit, dropping the purchase price for apps and pushing in-app sales. This is going to bite some of them in the ass, though. Apple has a solid policy against in-app sales for physical items or anything that can be used outside of the app. They’re currently in “discussions” with British media retailer HMV over their iOS app which enabled MP3 downloads that could be used by any app on the device. Look for more such “discussions” in the future.

And then there are the iPads. Much to everyone’s surprise, the new iPads got a new name: iPad Air. Way to simplify things, Apple. More importantly, the new models are much lighter. If you’re interested in a tablet somewhere around the ten-inch mark where weight is a serious concern, it’s well worth a look at the iPad Air. It’s clearly the lightest device in that class. Add in that very high resolution screen, and it makes a good case for being worth the usual price premium over the Samsungs and Nexuses (Nexii?).

The other big surprise was the iPad Mini finally getting a Retina screen. Oh, wait. That wasn’t much of a surprise. But it’s now official, so moving on. The Mini isn’t as much of a contender in its class (7-8 inch tablets) as the Air is in the larger tablet space. It does take the resolution lead, albeit only by a small margin over the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX 7. But it’s also the heaviest small tablet out there and this is a niche where one-handed operation is the rule. 1.4 ounces may not sound like much, but when you’re trying to read on the subway, you notice the difference surprisingly quickly. The A7 processor should make it competitively fast, but the price tag, almost twice that of the Nexus 7 and HDX 7, is going to drag it back.

B Is For BART

Looks like I was a bit off in my predictions about the length of a BART strike: I was expecting something closer to a week than the four days we actually got. Not that I’m complaining. Having BART out of operation is a royal pain, especially for anyone who normally uses it to go someplace other than downtown San Francisco. None of the alternatives are of use if you’re commuting between two points in the East Bay. Fortunately, Maggie was able to telecommute, but I’m sure she was in a minority. The newspaper was full of reports of people who slept at their desks in San Francisco or had their normal hour commute stretch to three or four hours.

So now there’s a settlement. Of course, the proposed contract still needs to be ratified by the unions and BART management. My gut reaction is that all parties will accept the deal, but it’s not exactly a sure thing. One BART director has already gone on record as opposing the deal, and nobody is offering odds one way or the other on the union membership’s opinion. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, calls for a legal ban on transit strikes (which would presumably also cover AC Transit, who are just beginning their 60 day cooling-off period). Even if legislation passes, it’s not going to remove the possibility of a BART shutdown. Workers could still strike illegally. It’s happened in New York; it could happen here. Even without a strike, a “work slow-down” could be just as devastating. BART’s rather elderly computer systems struggle to cope on busy commute days. Imagine how badly they could be snarled if even a few drivers called in requests for maintenance checks at every stop, or took their trains out of automatic control, citing “safety concerns”.

Still, the current system clearly isn’t working. As several commentators have pointed out, the previous contract included as “no strike” clause. The unions ignored it on the grounds that the contract was expired, although they insisted that all other provisions, especially those related to pay, should remain in effect. It’s a wonder management didn’t retaliate in kind and ignore the clause that forbids them from hiring replacement workers until the unions go on strike. Heck, for all we know, they might have. Reports on Saturday’s fatal accident are that the train was being used to train replacement drivers. Rumor has it that the trainees were managers who had previously been drivers, but BART hasn’t confirmed that. Could they have been new hires?

I don’t know how to fix it, but let me suggest one place to start: The contract is 470 pages long. Four hundred seventy. Most of that is apparently what they refer to as “work rules”, the codification of thirty years of “how we do it here”. Those rules were a major point of contention in the negotiations, and the incorporation into the contract has limited both sides’ ability to propose changes. According to ExecuRead, the average reading speed for technical material is approximately five minutes per page. That means that the typical BART worker is going to need around 40 hours — a full work week — to absorb the contents of the contract he’s signing. Estimates of average salaries for BART employees vary wildly. I’ve seen as low as $60,000 and as high as $80,000. Even by going by the lowest value, that’s $1100 per employee, or — very conservatively — $2,750,000. Does that sound like overkill to anyone else? OK, I’ll grant you that we can amortize the amount across the four years of the proposed contract, but that’s still almost $700,000 a year being spent just on reading the damned document.

Cynically, I doubt anyone is actually reading what they’re committing themselves to — that’s what lawyers are for, right? — but maybe I’m pessimistic.

My advice, and take it for what it’s worth, is to amend the contract to remove the work rules and replace them with a notation that employees are subject to the rules as documented separately. This is the same process by which other businesses include employee dress codes and similar organizational practices and procedures. The potential gains are clear: contract negotiations can focus on pay and benefits, which are quite contentious enough; meanwhile the work rules can be updated independently of the contract, making it easier to keep them in sync with a rapidly-changing technical and regulatory environment.

C Is For Critters

The last item for today is a heads-up for those of you who enjoy the Friday Cute Critter posts. For the next month or so, I’ll be taking a break from posting pictures of our crew and bringing you a special feature: “Meet the Neighbors”. Join me tomorrow, won’t you?

You’re Searching For What?

Well, that’s no surprise.

The number one search on Google today is for iOS 7. Because there’s such a small number of sites with any information about Apple’s latest OS, and there’s been little, if any, public discussion of the new features, the release date, or how to install it, the public has an insatiable need for all the details today.

Seriously, WTF? IOS 7 articles have been swamping the Web for weeks, and it’s only now that it’s available to install that people are searching for it? Over five million searches today and it didn’t even make 50,000 yesterday to crack the top searches list.

Can we add procrastination to the list of society’s ills, along with short attention spans and leaving baseball games before they end?

In other search-related news, yesterday “Grand Theft Auto 5” was number four on Google’s list — and “GTA 5 Cheats” was number six, with nearly as many searches.* Today, “GTA 5 Cheats” has moved up to number five, but the game itself has dropped off of the list. I conclude that the people who don’t cheat at video games are busy downloading iOS 7 today. Presumably the cheaters are Android users.

* Am I the only one who finds it amusing that the number five search was another automotive simulation: “NASCAR”?

What else is going on in the wacky world of searching?

The number two search today is “Scott Eastwood”. Clearly, there’s great interest in topless males — more than in topless females, as January Jones is well behind at number seven. Maybe it’s just breast exhaustion? Yesterday searchers were deeply into Christina Milian’s nipple-revealing tank top, after all. They were also eagerly hunting for intel on Emily Ratajkowski, nude star of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video.

It looks like the world’s interest in the Washington Navy Yard shooting has faded. Yesterday’s number one search, “Aaron Alexis”, has fallen off of the list completely today. Did I mention “short attention spans”? I did? Oh, good.

Now that I think about it, three of today’s top ten searches are for specific celebrities, and another three are for movies and TV shows. Can we also add “celebrity obsession” to the list?

I was hoping that the above were American problems, but unfortunately not. The top three searches in the UK are “iOS 7”, “GTA 5 cheats”, and “Tour of Britain”. At least the British are interested in a bicycle race. That’s something.

Canadians: “iOS 7”, “OC Transpo”, and “Ottawa Citizen”. Apple leads a bus/train accident and a murder by an order of magnitude. And Scott Eastwood is in there at number five. Scott, pleas put your shirt back on, so Canadians can get back to cheating on video games.

In Japan, iOS 7 is trailing slightly behind pop group AKB48 for the public’s attention. Go, Japan, go!

And in India, iOS 7 is drawing five times as much attention as actor Dilip Kumar.

“I blame society” has become a cliché, and doesn’t really work as an excuse for aberrant behaviour today, so let’s try a different theory: clearly Google is broken. Please join me in attempting to fix it by spending the rest of the day in using it the way it was intended: searching for cat videos. Just watch out for Nyan Cat.