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.

Apple Bites Developers and Customers

Apple is trying to throw a bone to users of its older devices. The bone is more of a boomerang that’s going to bounce back and hit users and developers in the back of the head.

A number of sites are reporting today that Apple has made a change to the iOS App Store such that if a user tries to install an app on a device that can’t support it, they’ll be offered the option of installing an older version of the app.

As an example, consider my first generation iPad. It cannot be upgraded to any version of iOS newer than 5.1.1. Now consider app X, which was originally written for iOS 4, and then was later updated to require iOS 5 in version 2.0; in version 3.0 it was again updated to require iOS 6. The latest and greatest enhancement to version 3.5 requires iOS 7, but 3.5 isn’t in the store yet, since iOS 7 won’t be released until tomorrow.

If I had tried to install X before Apple’s App Store change, I would have gotten a message telling me that it was not compatible with my device and that I needed to upgrade to iOS 6 — which I can’t do. Today, if I try to install it, I’ll get a message telling me that version 3.0 isn’t compatible with my device and offering me the option of installing version 2.0 instead.

Sounds like a nice, customer-friendly change, doesn’t it? Most of the sites reporting on the change are certainly describing it that way. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Consider that there was a reason why app X was updated. Developers don’t enforce a requirement for a particular version of iOS just because they can. They enforce it because the app uses an operating system function that isn’t available in earlier versions of the OS. So when iOS 6 came out, the developers of X started using some spiffy new feature — let’s say they started using the Passbook functionality to support gift cards. That functionality is only available to iOS 6 users, thus the restriction of X version 3.0 to iOS 6.

As a user, I may or may not understand that restriction — there’s a lot of feedback in the App Store that suggests that I don’t. So when I hear about the cool new gift card feature, I go to X’s page to install the app. I get a generic message that tells me I have to install an older version. It doesn’t explain what I don’t get by installing the older version, so I go ahead and install it, and I can’t find the gift card feature. What do I do? I immediately go back to the app store and post a one star rating, possibly with a helpful review that says “This app sucks. Gift card functionality is missing. Don’t use!”

Wait, it gets even better. Suppose I didn’t care about the gift card feature, but I like some of the features that are present in version 2.0. I keep the app on my iPad and use it for a couple of weeks, and then I discover bug: the app crashes if I try to use it after 5pm on Thursdays. (I’m assuming a lot here: most users aren’t going to go much beyond “the app crashes”. But I’m being generous.) Since I’m being generous, I report the bug to the developers directly instread of just leaving bad feedback in the App Store. Now the developers have a choice. They can:

  1. Tell me that version 2.0 isn’t supported any more. Now I’m pissed off. They lose a customer and I leave lousy feedback.
  2. Do the research to figure out why the app crashes on Thursday evenings and it turns out it’s only present in 2.0. Now they have a choice: do they fix the bug and release a version 2.1 for just those of us who can’t upgrade to 3.0? That’s going to increase development and testing time, so probably not. Again, I’m pissed off.
  3. Maybe they do the research and discover that it’s also present in version 3.0. At least now the time they spend doing the research and fixing the bug (and QA testing the fix) benefits their current customers. But they still have to decide whether to do a 2.1 release.

One more scenario: Many apps that require communication with a server turn off the communication for versions that have aged beyond a certain point. Consider our app X again. The makers were planning to turn off support for version 2.0 when 3.5 goes live in the App Store tomorrow. Apple has no way of knowing that they’ve turned it off, so when I come to the store this weekend and install the app it launches, but can’t connect to the server and I can’t use it. Hopefully the developers included a polite message in the app explaining that the version I’m trying to use is too old and I need to upgrade, but since I can’t upgrade, I’m pissed again.

What’s the poor developer going to do now? Apple pushes developers to adopt new OS functionality as quickly as possible, but this new App Store feature is going to punish them if they do.

No matter what, the result of Apple’s “customer-friendly” move is pissed off customers, and in many cases, additional work for developers.

Thanks, Apple.

Apple, Again

So Apple had its usual multimedia extravaganza to promote their forward-thinking, innovative iOS and iPhone releases. Apple’s taken a lot of hits lately for their lack of innovation, but I think today sets the record straight. Just look at what all they announced:

  • The way forward is through new sales. All of the apps in their iWork suite will be free. To anyone buying a new iOS device, anyway. Current customers don’t matter, Apple is looking forward to the new customers and rewarding them with Keynote, Pages, Numbers, iPhoto, and iMovie.
  • iOS 7 will be available to all on September 18th. Hey, they’re looking a whole week into the future! It’s got all kinds of unique features like a convenient Control Center and Notification Center. Nothing like those on any Android phone! Well, OK, maybe there is, but iOS’ versions have that futuristic “flat” look! Yeah, I’m exaggerating here, but frankly iOS has been commentated to death already. There isn’t much here that we haven’t known about since the first beta.
  • That ancient iPhone 5 is dead, dead, dead. It’s being replaced by the exciting new iPhone 5C, the even more exciting iPhone 5S, and the absolutely thrilling iPhone 4S. Wait, what?
    • The iPhone 5C is (as Ars Technica put it) essentially identical to the iPhone 5 but plastic instead of aluminum. The big excitement is that it will be available in thrilling new colors: blue, green, red, yellow, and white. Oh, and its front-facing camera will have better low-light performance than that old iPhone 5. Prices starting at $99. Pre-order starting Friday, available a week later. Again, looking forward.
    • (Turning the snark mode off for a moment. Mostly.) The 5S is where the innovation really shines. Brand new 64-bit CPU (“The only phone with a 64-bit CPU”), up to twice as fast as the previous generation. iOS 7 has, of course, been fully updated to support 64-bit code while retaining full backward compatibility with existing 32-bit apps. In the long term, this will be a big win in terms of speed and capability. In the short term, we’re going to see a flood of customer complaints about apps not being updated to 64-bit versions, even in cases where there’s no value in it. A new “motion co-processor” will handle the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass without the CPU needing to get involved. Opens up possibilities for context-sensitive and activity-aware apps. Major enhancements to the camera (bigger pixels, wider aperture, larger image sensor) combined with OS updates that pretty much boil down to “you don’t need to know a thing about photography to take pretty pictures”. A lot of the changes amount to taking multiple pictures at once and then the OS choosing the best of them, because it knows what effect you were going for better than you do. And then there’s that famous fingerprint reader in the home button. No more passcode and no more typing your password to buy something from the iTunes store. Just put your finger on the button. Very slick. Of course, if you share your phone, you’re screwed. It’s going to be a lot harder to share a finger than it was to share a passcode. Lior, I’m sure you’ll be happy to sacrifice a finger to the cause, right? Snip it off, preserve it in plastic, and pass it around to the team… At least you can use the same finger for multiple phones. Oh, and let’s not forget that you fingerprint data is encrypted and stored locally on the phone, never uploaded to Apple’s servers. That means the NSA can’t get your fingerprint. Uh… unless they arrest you and take your phone away. But they wouldn’t do that, because the fingerprint is only decryptable via the TouchID software on your phone. They can’t possibly crack that encryption, right? And if they can’t, nobody else can either! This phone is so cutting edge and futuristic that you can’t even pre-order it. It’ll be available on September 20th and you can order it then!
    • And that spiffy new iPhone 4S is free-with-contract. Because in the future, there’s still going to be a demand for a slower CPU and a lower-resolution screen. Apple’s got you covered, future retro enthusiasts!
  • The future of music is its past! The show ended with an appearance of Elvis Costello, whose long career is a clear indication that he’ll continue to produce cutting edge music for years to come. Look, Apple, I love Elvis Costello as much as the next guy, but if you’re trying to establish relevance and forward-thinking, he’s probably not the right choice. How about showcasing a new group, somebody on the edge of success, or at most just enough of a track record to show they’re not a one-hit wonder?

As you may have gathered, I wasn’t hugely wowed by Apple’s announcements. Yes, the 5S is a significant step forward, but it’s going to take some time for developers to catch up to its capabilities.

In Apple’s defense, though, I was pleased to see that they’re not following the current Android trend of ever-larger phones with ever-larger camera pixel counts. They may not be blazing new trails, but at least they’re not tramping down the same trail as everyone else.

Give Me a…

Once again Lior earns brownie points for tossing me the subject of a post. He’s concerned about Google’s new foray into cross-marketing: both that they’ve done it at all, and that they’re doing it with a Swiss company instead of keeping the $$$ in the US.

Lior and I disagree. Of course we do. If we agreed, I’d just post the rant he sent me and be done for the day…

For those of you who don’t follow obsessively follow Android news, the story is that Google surprised the heck out of the tech world yesterday with their announcement of the code name for the next version of the Android OS, due out next month. Techies had been assuming for months that the name would be “Key Lime Pie”. Google, however, went with “KitKat” and has a full cross-marketing agreement in place with the candy bar.

Let’s take the easy one first. The Kit Kat name is, as Lior notes, owned by Nestle, a Swiss company. However, Google’s licensing agreement is with Hershey, an American company that owns the brand in the U.S. So those dollars are nominally staying in the country. On the flip side, there really isn’t any such thing as a national company: with Apple saving big bucks on taxes by routing funds through Ireland, Microsoft buying Nokia’s phone business, and on and on, it’s pretty clear that one country isn’t big enough to hold a tech giant. For that matter, Google Zurich is “Google’s largest engineering office in Europe, the Middle East and Africa”, so you could also think of this deal as being between a pair of Swiss companies.

As for the larger concern, the commercialization of the Android brand, frankly I’m surprised it’s taken this long. Google has passed up a heck of a lot of previous opportunities:

  • Cupcake – The first dessert-themed release and the first public release. Nobody knew it was going to be the start of a tradition at the time, so making a big corporate tie-in would have taken away from the real core message: “Hey, Android is here!”
  • Donut – Don’t even try to tell me that Dunkin’ Donuts wouldn’t have been a good match… Actually, it wouldn’t have been a good match. DD is much better known on the East Coast than the West, and Google would want to appeal to as wide an audience as possible while trying to get global traction for the OS.
  • Éclair – Now we’re starting to get into territory where a cross-brand might have made some sense. There aren’t any well-known eclair manufacturers, though, so a different dessert would have been necessary. How about Eskimo Pie, also a name owned by Nestle?
  • Froyo – The frozen yoghurt market is rather fragmented; I’m not sure Google could have found a single purveyor with the kind of national reach they would have wanted. Fortune cookie, anyone? Wonton Food, Inc. probably would have jumped at the chance.
  • Gingerbread – Again, not a lot of strong national brand identification. Hmm. Gingersnaps? Gelato? Not much better. They might have wanted to sit this one out from a marketing perspective.
  • Honeycomb – Post probably would have killed for the chance at this one. Too bad the cereal isn’t known as a dessert. On the other hand, considering how short Honeycomb’s useful lifespan was, positioning it as a breakfast might have helped.
  • Ice Cream Sandwich – Bay Area techies would have screamed with joy if there had been a deal in place with It’s-It. Too bad the rest of the country would have said “Huh? What’s that?” Mmm, It’s-It.
  • Jelly Bean – Jelly Belly, anyone? Or if Google wanted to boost their appeal in the UK, how about Jelly Baby? Ah for the lost opportunity for Dr. Who offering up Nexus devices. Or the really big name: Jello. Need I say more?

Moving on…

As I said, I’m not that concerned about Google tying themselves to Hershey on this release. Competing on the merits of the OS has taken Android about as far as possible against Apple. Now, with Apple apparently poised to release a lower-cost iPhone, Google needs to start raising Android’s profile with the non-techie public. “Like an iPhone, but cheaper” isn’t going to fly. “Tasty” will.

That said, Google, please don’t tie in every release to a corporate sponsor. No more than every other release, OK? Do that, and I’ll look forward to Lollipop/Lemon Bar/Lemon Meringue Pie just as eagerly as I look forward to Mounds/Mars Bar/M&M.

Oh, and how’s about you stick with products whose owners spell them consistently? I’m not looking forward to the next year’s religious wars over whether it’s “Kit Kat” or “KitKat”.

Biting the Forbidden Fruit

Things have been getting sexy for Apple lately, and not in a good way.

There has long been a class of malware in the Windows world called “ransomware”. Once it finds its way onto a computer, it blocks functionality or encrypts data and then demands money.

Recently, this type of evil has made its way to the Mac in the form of a JavaScript program that takes over the Safari browser. It displays a web page that claims the FBI has been monitoring your computer use and has detected that “You have been viewing or distributing prohibited Pornographic content (Child Porno photos and etc were found on your computer).” The code prevents you from leaving the page until you fork over a “release fee” of $300. It also uses Safari’s ability to reload a page if the browser crashes to forcibly reload the lock page if you force-close Safari.

Other claimed violations in the warning message include violations of copyright and, amusingly enough, “your PC may be infected by malware”.

No word on whether paying the ransom actually results in returning control of your browser to you. Fortunately, you can escape very simply without paying the ransom, but you will lose your browsing history, passwords, and other browser data.

So on the one hand, we have Mac users being falsely accused of possessing kiddy porn and being given the option of paying a small “fine” to sweep it under the rug. Meanwhile, Apple itself is being sued for making pornography available.

The International Business Times is reporting that a man is blaming his porn addiction on his MacBook, and is suing Apple. Among his demands are that Apple include a porn filter on every device they make that has the ability to display pornography and to require users to read and agree to a consumer notice about the evils of pornography in order to turn the filter off.

Reports indicate that the plaintiff, a lawyer, has been barred from practicing law due to Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome-related mental illness, which could certainly explain some of the more… interesting claims made in the suit. Many people are pointing to the claim that Apple is harming the economy buy driving sex shops out of business as an indication of the plaintiff’s mental illness. Personally, I think a better example is the claim that directly equates Apple’s failure to provide porn filters as the cause of (among other things) ADHD and thrill seeking to the U.S. Government’s failure to invade Afghanistan as the cause of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.

Contrary to what Trekkie Monster would have you believe, the Internet is not just for porn. Why, I’ve used my iPad for as much as five minutes at a time without seeing any pornography!

Ahem.

More seriously, the plaintiff’s suit would also require Apple to proactively seek out sites specializing in pornography and work with the FBI to shut them down. An interesting notion: privatization of the determination of what constitutes “pornography” (Mr. Sevier’s complaint helpfully provides a definition: “any picture, photograph, drawing, sculpture, motion picture film, or similar visual representation or image of a person or a portion of the human body, which depicts nudity, sexual conduct, excess violence, or sadomasochistic abuse, and which is harmful to minors and adult males.”) Apparently women cannot be harmed by such material. But I digress. Other sections of the legal filing make it clear that the last clause is redundant; in Mr. Sevier’s opinion, any depiction of such materials is harmful to adult males (and probably minors as well).

So we’re not just talking about obscenity here, nor are we talking about legal pornography, we’re talking about any depiction of the unclothed body. And apparently anywhere in the world; Mr. Sevier seems to be unaware that the Internet is global, extending far beyond the FBI’s jurisdiction.

*sigh*

I could go on for hours – the complaint is 50 pages long, and I doubt that there’s a single page that doesn’t contain an outrage against common sense.

The problem here is that if the case isn’t thrown out immediately, Apple will be in a difficult position. The publicity they would receive in fighting the suit would do grave harm to their reputation as a “Family Friendly” company. On the other hand, not fighting the suit and adopting even some of Mr. Sevier’s proposed remedies would cost millions of dollars in creating and maintaining a porn filter that wouldn’t work to Mr. Sevier’s standards anyway (a fact that’s been widely acknowledged since at least the turn of the century). And the intermediate position of paying him a settlement to withdraw the suit and go away would subject them to the same negative publicity as fighting and open them to a potential flood of nuisance suits seeking similar settlements.

Will the suit be tossed? I certainly hope so, but I’m not hugely optimistic. It was filed in Tennessee, a state with a history of prosecuting pornography and obscenity cases across state lines (see, for example, the 1994 “Amateur Action BBS” case in which BBS operators in Milpitas, California were charged with distributing obscene materials in Tennessee in part through a dial-up BBS. Let us hope that Apple meets a happier fate than the Thomases did.

Apple WWDC

Last week was pretty depressing, especially towards the end of the week. I’m going to try to keep it a bit lighter this week, but the universe being the perverse place that it is, I fully expect a major disaster of some sort that will totally blow my plans to shreds. Until the universe starts slinging tire irons at our metaphorical kneecaps, though, cheerful is the word.

Let’s start with some updates on the wonderful world of Apple as revealed in this morning’s WWDC keynote. I’m getting most of my information from Ars Technica, and I highly recommend them if you want additional details on anything I talk about. Note that I’m not going to talk about iCloud and OS X as I don’t particularly use either, so I’m not in a position to comment on the usefulness of the updates.

Correction: One comment specifically on OS X. Apparently Apple has run out of cats. All of the versions from 10.0 (“Cheetah”) to 10.8 (“Mountain Lion”) were named after big cats, but the 10.9 release is “Mavericks” (for the California surfing spot, not the Dallas basketball team). A shame, really, but it does offer some room for fun and speculation. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that next year’s release (whether it be 10.10 or 11.0) will be named “Emeryville” in view of Apple’s close relationship with Pixar.

Moving right along…

Apple has officially announced their much-rumored streaming music offering. “iTunes Radio” will, according to Ars, be built into the upcoming iOS 7 (more on iOS 7 in a moment) and be available through AppleTV and iTunes for OS X. Not making it available for Windows iTunes users seems to make no business sense. Other venues are reporting that it will be available when Mavericks is released; I suspect Ars misunderstood or misreported. At the moment, this comes off as a “me too” play from Apple – it doesn’t seem to offer customers anything they don’t already have, but if Apple can do a significantly better job with its new music recommendation functionality that the current players have, there’s a potential for major migrations away from Pandora, Spotify, and others.

On the iOS 7 front, the biggest news in terms of number of words spent is actually the least significant in terms of functionality. Everyone is reporting on the new “flattened” UI. This is a change that makes little or no practical difference to customers, but will make work for developers who will now need to implement a new set of UI elements to stay consistent with the overall look and feel. Such good times!

On the brighter side, developers will no longer have to worry about the iPhone 3GS as iOS 7 will only be available for the iPhone 4 and newer. Over on the iPad side, original iPad users were not brought in from the cold – they’ll remain stuck on iOS 5. All other iPad users will be able to upgrade to iOS 7 when it comes out in the fall.

And speaking of updates, the App Store will now automatically update apps instead of nagging users to upgrade. If Apple implements this as the only configuration, it’s a big win for developers, who will no longer need to support multiple versions of their apps at once. If it’s optional behaviour, there’s likely to be little change from the current situation, as users who don’t like to update will just turn off the automatic updates and continue to ignore the nags.

More small changes that seem like they could actually be useful for users: the iCloud keychain will act as a password manager, suggesting secure passwords and sharing them across customer’s Apple phones, tablets, and desktops. This sort of functionality has been available from third-parties for years, but baking it into the OS should increase adoption and make at least a small boost in online security. Photos and movies can be shared from inside the Photos app and can be shared via an ad-hoc wifi connection (no need to tap phones together as on Samsung’s Android phones). Safari now has a scrollable tab interface, as well as what appears to be an integrated RSS reader. That could actually be very handy with the demise of Google Reader.

Ooh, here’s an incredibly useful change: Siri now has an optional male voice! How thrilling! (Seriously, there are useful Siri changes, including integration of Wikipedia and Bing search results, but that was too easy a target to resist…) I’m a little surprised Apple hasn’t started cutting deals for celebrity voices as on GPS units. Granted that the larger vocabulary would be a bit of a barrier, but I’d be willing to bet that a core vocabulary could be defined and implemented, and less common words could be handled with the current synthesized approach.

What else? I’m not seeing a whole let else. I’m sure my former cow-orkers are busy installing the developer beta of iOS 7 as I write this. Hey, gang, chime in and let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed that we should be looking forward to.

Until we hear from that old gang o’ mine, I’ll rate iOS 7 as “nice, but not earth-shaking”.

Knock-Knock

No, that title isn’t the start of a joke.

Now I feel like an idiot for April’s post on the CISPA bill and its potential to strip privacy protections online.

After all, we now know that we already have no protection.

With this week’s revelations about phone companies being required to turn over metadata for all calls and the existence of the PRISM program that gives the NSA full access to everything that Microsoft, Google, Apple, and a host of other large Internet companies know, it’s clear that if you use a phone or computer, you have no privacy whatsoever.

Consider: According to the Guardian and Washington Post reports, to conduct a PRISM search, the NSA has to be 51% sure that the subject is foreign. That’s the only limitation. A barrier that low will allow a massive number of false positives, but that’s almost irrelevant, because once the search begins, it can (again according to the reports) be extended to all of the contacts of the subject and all of the contacts of the contacts. By design, anyone who is “probably” not a US citizen is – and has been since at least 2007 – a terrorism suspect.

Hell, more than half of the regular readers of this blog are “foreign”; they have no protection against being the subject of a PRISM search: PRISM was designed to allow the NSA to monitor everything they do online to “protect against terrorism”.

Last week’s picture of Kokoro lurking in the headboard of my bed drew likes from people in England, Wales, and Moscow. The NSA knows that (and knew it before this post told the world). Since I’m now associated with those foreign “suspects”, all of my online activities are now available to the NSA, and because I’m associated with you, so are yours. And by “you”, I’m not just talking about those of you reading this post. Everyone I’ve communicated with falls into that category – as described, PRISM would make it trivially easy for the NSA to link the email address I use for this blog to all of my other email addresses, at which point they’ll find out that I’ve exchanged emails with citizens of India, Japan, and China. Better check all of their contacts; since they’re foreign, the rule of “two levels of contacts” resets and the NSA can chain their searches outward from there. Nice work, Kokoro. You’re single-pawedly responsible for the investigation of thousands of people around the world for their possible roles in plotting terroristic acts against the US.

Yes, I do have a sudden urge to make myself an aluminum foil hat. Why do you ask? Right now it’s seeming like the most sensible thing to do.

Seriously though folks, if even half of the capabilities being touted for PRISM are accurate, by combining its output with the results of the phone company data, the NSA can figure out not only damn near everything you’ve done online, but also what you’re doing out in the real world. Legally. And that’s why I feel like an idiot about getting bent out of shape over CISPA – all that adds to the government’s capabilities is to let the FBI and Homeland Security track US citizens without first linking them somehow to someone “foreign”.

Please, no comments along the lines of “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t care.” If nothing else, when the government can secretly monitor everything you do, “wrong” is what they define it to be. I don’t think I’m being overly pessimistic in saying that “Niemöller” and Orwell were conservative.

Frankly, I think there’s very little we can do. The capability won’t go away: even if a public outcry forced the repeal of the PATRIOT Act and the other legislation that enables this warrantless surveillance, you can be sure that the tools will stay in the hands of the government agencies that have it now. They’re just too useful for them to give up. And removing the laws that limit their use will just encourage the agencies to use them more: why shouldn’t they if any use is illegal?

Heck, given the administration’s position that these data collection programs are “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats”, even trying to take those toys away can be classed as a terroristic act (giving aid to terrorists).

If y’all will excuse me, I’m going to go downstairs and arrest myself. Maybe if I save the government the effort of doing it, they’ll let me share my cell with Kokoro.

History Repeats

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

You may have heard that a plot to bomb a political rally in England failed last year. (The story is in the news now because the bombers just pleaded guilty and will be sentenced next month.) The plot failed, not because of sharp police work, but because the rally ended early and the bombers arrived after everyone had left. They were caught because they had failed to properly fill out the online paperwork for insurance on their car, and it was impounded after a traffic stop; their weapons were found when the car was inspected at the impound lot several days later.

Let me make one thing clear: I am not suggesting that the British police missed something they should have found or that anything improper was done. As I understand it, at least one of the plotters was under surveillance due to his associations with known terroristic groups, but did not do anything that triggered any alerts. No intelligence agency has the resources – in money or staff – to watch every suspect 24 hours a day. I’m rather glad for that. Given unlimited time and money, an intelligence agency is going to suspect – and pursue – everyone.

I bring this up because I saw an interesting parallel.

Let’s turn the clock back to World War I. In 1915, there were several major uses for the industrial chemical phenol. Among them were: a component in the military explosive trinitrophenol, the salicylic acid used in the manufacture of Aspirin, and the plastic used in Edison Diamond Disc phonograph records. Prior to the American entry into the war, Germany went to great lengths to keep phenol out of the hands of the American military.

With the British phenol supply dedicated to supplying the British military with trinitrophenol instead of available for trade, Edison found himself with a shortage. His solution was to open his own phenol production facility. Given the economies of scale involved, he had far more phenol available than he needed for his record company, so he started looking for a buyer. In stepped a dummy corporation covertly funded by the German government and fronted by one Hugo Schweitzer. The corporation bought Edison’s phenol on behalf of the German-owned Bayer company who owned the patent on aspirin. The caper – known today as “The Great Phenol Plot” – ran smoothly for some time.

Unfortunately for the Germans, Heinrich Albert, one of the officials involved in funneling money to Schweitzer was under investigation by the US government his part in the German propaganda effort. An alert Secret Service agent grabbed Albert’s briefcase when he carelessly left it on the train. The details of the plot were revealed, Edison began providing his excess phenol to the US military, and at the end of the war, Bayer lost their trademark on the term “aspirin” as part of the war reparations.

So what’s the key happening here? Despite the fact that a key figure was under investigation for a related matter, the plot was exposed due to a simple, everyday mistake on the part of the key figure.

I’m sure these are not isolated events. People make mistakes, and the more complicated a plot becomes, the more chances there are for a single mistake to bring the whole thing down in pieces.

What I find most interesting about this example of history repeating is that it intersects with another repetition.

Edison’s disc records were designed to be compatible only with Edison record players, but the disc format produced arguably superior sound quality to the competition – and the discs and players were more expensive than the competition’s. Anyone else see a modern likeness in Apple’s approach to selling music? Their implementation of the aac format was designed to be played only with Apple equipment (iTunes and iPods), but produced arguably better sound quality than mp3 – and the hardware is significantly more expensive than competitive equivalents. Is there a “Germany” in this analogy? I don’t think it’s a major stretch to assign that role to China, with Foxconn playing the role of Bayer…