Apple, the FBI, and the iPhone

From everything I've seen, here's a brief synopsis of what we know:

  • The iPhone belonged to the County of San Bernardino.
  • The county purchased, but did not install, the $4/month software that would have enabled them to access/wipe/unlock the iPhone.
  • The passcode on the phone was changed while in law enforcement's possession.
  • Had they not changed the passcode, it could have been backed up to iCloud and the information accessed on the back end by Apple without engineering a back door.
  • Because the County of San Bernardino and law enforcement both screwed up massively, they're now asking Apple to engineer a back door into the system that could render all iPhone users vulnerable.

Given all of the above, I can only say one thing.

Screw 'em.

My current favorite TV shows

Apropos of nothing, here are my top five favorite television shows that are currently being produced:

  1. Better Call Saul

  2. The Americans

  3. Longmire

  4. The Man In The High Castle

  5. ???

The fifth spot is currently open. Maybe 11.22.63 will show up there. I'll let you know after I've seen it.

Edit: I forgot to mention Deutschland 83, which is on Hulu and which I've heard good things about. Looking forward to seeing it also.

Life with iPhone and Android

I've been using both an iPhone and an Android phone - a Samsung Galaxy S6, to be precise - for the last several days. This is because my employer has provided me with both an iPhone 6S and the Galaxy S6 for testing at work, and I've chosen to make the Galaxy my work phone, in large part because I already have a 64 GB iPhone 6S, and the 16 GB model that work gave me isn't going to enhance my experience.

Also, I've used Android in the past, and liked it (mostly) well enough; it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit what a premium Android phone is like these days, and keep myself up to date. I've had a few surprises.

The first surprise is that battery life isn't better. With the deserved reputation that the iPhone 6S has for being a bit short in the battery life department, I would have thought the Samsung would show it up. It doesn't. It's worse than the iPhone (score one for the iPhone, sort of). It's not terrible, but without topping it up throughout the day, it would die by dinnertime. Fortunately, the Samsung has Qi wireless charging built in, so I can use the Qi charger I got for my old HTC Windows Phone. Score one for the Samsung: I wish the iPhone supported wireless charging.

The second surprise is that battery woes aside, I find myself preferring the Samsung in daily use. Not out of the box, mind you—I can't stand TouchWiz and the crapware it comes with—but the beauty of Android is that you can fix all that. After disabling the crapware, installing a new theme (Material Design), an alternate launcher (Action 3) and a custom icon pack (Rondo), I've got it looking and acting the way I want. In fact, it's mine in a way that my iPhone will never—can never—be. And the larger screen (compared to my iPhone) is great.

What else? I like the Google bar on the home screen. I like Google Now. I like that I can remove an app from the home screen without deleting it entirely. The NewsBlur app for Android works much better than the iOS version. I love that I can designate my own default apps—Signal for SMS, for example. And LastPass form filling is much better on Android.

That's not to say everything's perfect. Have I mentioned battery life? Well, that. The iPhone still is the king of apps. I miss Siri, which is a bit better than Google Now when I'm driving. There's no CARROT Weather for Android, and the Peach app is nowhere to be found. I wish Cloak existed for Android. The fingerprint reader isn't quite as good as that on the iPhone. As for updates, I'll get Marshmallow if and when Samsung and AT&T deign to release it (this, more than anything else, is why I recommend Nexus phones to those who want to go Android). And—¦well, that's about it. Everything else I use is either on Android, or there's something equivalent or better.

This is where you're going to say, "Yeah, well, what about privacy? Huh? HUH? Answer me that, smart man." OK, I will. If that's your biggest concern, then you should probably go get an Ubuntu phone and really stick it to the Man. As for me, I'm just not that worried. I use cloud services, which means I need to trust Dropbox and Google and Microsoft and even Apple. I'm not aware of any cases where any of those companies have horribly misused anyone's data. If it's the government you're worried about (coughNSAcough), well, good luck with that. Also, and just for the record, I regard Google, Apple, and Microsoft as being approximately equal in terms of their claims to the moral high ground. They're all multinational, billion-dollar companies. I consider this a draw.

And that's really the lesson here. From what I've seen in the last several days, the iPhone and Android have pulled even. Some things are better on the iPhone, some things are better on Android, and which way you fall is going to depend on your own personal preferences, biases, and needs.And that's as it should be. If you believe competition makes everything better, you want to have truly competitive mobile phone platforms. I think we're at that point now.

That doesn't mean I'm switching completely. I still have a lovely new iPhone 6S that I'll be paying off over the next year and a half, so I'm still an iPhone user.

But I'm also an Android user. And frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thoughts on the iPad Pro

A few observations about Apple's newest magical iThing:

  • I don't feel a need for one, but if it fills aneed for you, God bless you. Enjoy your new device.
  • There might be space in the market for somethingbetween the standard iPad and a laptop, but I haven't found it yet.
  • Whether or not you think the iPad Pro makessense, I have no doubt that Apple will sell a metric buttload of them.Investors, rejoice.
  • Yes, it makes me think of the Surface. TheSurface RT. Which everyone hated on, which failed miserably, and which isn't there anymore. Make of that what you will.
  • A screen that big and still only four icons perrow on the home screen in portrait orientation? Really? Really?

The "Foundation" of my beliefs

Today the App.net1 social network, of which I'm one of the remaining members, held a "Theme Monday" in which everyone was invited to change their avatar to a novel. For me, there could be only one choice.

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov, came immediately to mind. I first read it when I was eleven years old, and it taught me a worldview that has stayed with me until the present day. It's probably the most formative book I ever read.

For those who aren't familiar with it, Foundation takes place tens of thousands of years in the future, at a time when humanity has expanded to fill the galaxy. The Galactic Empire that they founded (not to be confused with the evil Galactic Empire of the Star Wars universe) is in its last throes, in a period of decay and disintegration. The hero of the book, Hari Seldon, is what is called a "psychohistorian" — a mathematician who has worked out that the actions of individuals may be unpredictable, but the actions of large groups of people are very predictable indeed. Given the vast population of an inhabited galaxy, considerable accuracy of prediction is possible.

His calculations indicate that the Empire will soon fall, and that there will be an interregnum of 30,000 years until the conditions are right for the formation of a second empire. However, he works out that by isolating a small group of people out on the far edges of the galaxy, safely tucked away and dedicated to keeping the light of knowledge alive, the period of the dark ages may be reduced to a single millennium. He uses the pretext of establishing a foundation dedicated to creating an "Encyclopedia Galactica" to preserve the collected knowledge of humanity to convince the government of the Empire to give him a remote world on which to settle a chosen nucleus of people. The books that follow tell their story, as the rest of the galaxy falls into ignorance and superstition.

Foundation taught me to believe in the power of knowledge and science to make the world a better place. That's something that I still believe in, and something that is all too often forgotten as the world lately seems to be devolving into a smaller, more insular, more superstitious place. While I still think that religion can be a positive force, all too often it's used as a pretext for hate, violence, and fear, or as a tool for controlling others. Indeed, in Foundation itself, there is a point at which an invented religion, which cloaks scientific technology in religious terminology, is used quite effectively by the people of the small, under-defended Foundation as a means of defense, and as a tool to maintain control of those on the worlds around them.

Foundation also taught me that there are better ways of resolving issues than through violence. Possibly my favorite literary quote of all time comes from a character named Salvor Hardin, the mayor of Terminus (the world on which the Foundation is established): "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." Time and again, the biggest and most important victories in the book are won not by those who merely have the guns, but by those whose knowledge and wisdom allows them to prevail. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Foundation taught me that when religion and science disagree—when the world isn't the way that you'd like it to be, when the thing you've always believed in says one thing and the evidence says another—that you have to be clear-eyed and acknowledge what really is. There's a point in the book at which a character emerges who was not predicted—who by his very nature could not have been predicted—in Seldon's plan, and by this point belief in the Plan has become a form of secular religion for the people of the Foundation. In order to effectively deal with him, the Foundation must deviate from the previously-sacred Plan. This, too, is an important lesson to learn. Maybe the most important.

That's why, when I look around me today, and I see people retreating into religious certainties when the evidence says something quite different—whether that be about same-sex attraction, economic principles, or (ahem) what the Pyramids were used for in ancient Egypt, I am sad. And angry. And determined that I will not be part of it. Religion can be a valuable tool for good works, but when it's used to hurt people, or to promote a blind ignorance, its value has been lost, and we're better off without it.

Asimov eventually tied in the Foundation trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation) with his robot novels, creating a vast future history of the galaxy, writing further books in the series and in the process bringing his famous Three Laws of Robotics to Seldon's psychohistory. Above all, it was a hopeful and positive view of what humanity could become.

I'm proud to say I believe in his vision. Hope for the future is not yet lost. But its realization will depend on the things we say, do, and act upon today and every day going forward, and on who we choose to stand with.

I stand with Isaac.


  1. My blog software used to generate a link here, but as of this writing (April 2019) the site to which I referred no longer exists, and the owners have sold the domain to another company, which is using it for something completely different. Sic transit gloria mundi, I suppose.

HalfDrive

By now, everyone's heard that Microsoft has reduced OneDrive storage allowances, eliminating unlimited storage in favor of a 1 TB limit for Office 365 subscribers, reducing the basic quota to 5 GB from 15 GB, and wiping out the 100 GB and 200 GB paid options. Apparently, they were surprised when people assumed that unlimited meant unlimited, calling it "abuse." Um, no. People using what they were told they could have is not abuse.That being said, they're mostly shooting themselves in the foot with this one, as most ordinary people probably don't use more than 1 TB anyway. Having that terabyte does, however, require that they be subscribers to Office 365. Most probably aren't; they do, however, need someplace to store the photos, music files, etc. that won't fit on the limited storage space on their Lumias, Surfaces, etc. You know, the kind of thing that Microsoft has been saying, "Don't worry, you've got 15 GB of free space on OneDrive for all that." Right. It's not clear how this latest move will help those customers, or how it enhances Microsoft's ability to be a "devices and services company," but I guess that's their business.

What's my business is what I use. Coincident with this self-inflicted wound, I've been looking around for ways to save a few bucks. High at the top of my list of things to take a second look at is the $99 a year I spend on Office 365. Of course, that is also where my 1 TB on OneDrive comes from.

Nevertheless, it's hard to ignore the following:

  • I'm an Amazon Prime member, so my 10 GB of photos gets stored for free on Amazon Cloud Drive
  • Amazon's been doing a great job hosting my music collection, for what it's worth
  • Dropbox charges the same $99 annually for 1 TB, and that doesn't give me Office, but storage is their freaking business, it works more smoothly, and they're unlikely to reduce quotas
  • Microsoft keeps [email protected]#$%ing up what was a pretty compelling experience

About that last item, here's what I mean:

  • Whatever its faults, Windows 8/8.1 was a fresh take on a touch interface, and on touch equipment it worked well. Windows 10 drags those same devices back to a desktop-oriented paradigm if they have a screen size of 8 inches or larger. WTF?
  • Windows Phone was a unique and new UI with some neat features like the People Hub, but they killed off the hub paradigm for Windows 10 phones, taking away a unique selling point.
  • Microsoft purchase of Nokia's phone business resulted in more than a year's worth of mediocre, low-end hardware when what they needed was a flagship.
  • Windows 10 brings with it the death of the placeholder functionality that was the single best thing about SkyDrive/OneDrive.

The point here is that I've pretty much lost faith that Microsoft is actually going to get their s**t together and carry through with their promises.

Another, equally important point is that I feel like a damn fool. I've been preaching the virtues of the reformed Microsoft to anyone who will listen for the last few years, and they've been systematically proving that my optimism was misplaced. Like most people, I don't appreciate that.

So, this leaves me with a quandary. Do I keep throwing money at Microsoft for a service that is less than stellar, or do I bite the bullet and start migrating elsewhere?

The first thing to consider is whether I'm getting value for money by paying Microsoft that $99 a year. I'm getting the latest Office, but I'm not sure that's such a great deal when I can get a fully licensed copy of Office 2016 Professional through my employer's Home Use Program for a measly ten bucks. True, that's a one-time deal, but how often do you upgrade your office suite? At work (a major multinational corporation whose name you would recognize), we're still using Office 2010 and it works just fine.

So if we take Office out of the equation, we're looking at paying Dropbox the same amount of money for the same amount of storage space. You might say that it's a wash, but my experience is that Dropbox works more smoothly with fewer errors than OneDrive. Therefore, that's a win for Dropbox (Note: I'm not even going to consider Google Drive, because I don't trust Google with my stuff, and that's non-negotiable. I'm not considering iCloud because I'm a PC user at home, and Apple software on PCs is usually a bucket of hurt that I don't need).

I also have Amazon Prime, so I can back up my photos to Amazon Cloud Drive for the low, low price of free. And, of course, I can also back them up to Dropbox for good measure. Do I trust Amazon? Mostly. They've been doing a good job with my music collection, and I've had backup files on Amazon S3 for years now, so I am confident they won't lose my stuff. That being said, I'm going to keep my e-books backed up to Dropbox, because I want those stored somewhere out of their reach for what should be obvious reasons.

All of the foregoing is why I've spent the last couple of days upgrading to Dropbox Pro and moving my files from OneDrive (and moving my photos to Amazon). I will admit that I didn't see this coming. I really thought that I'd settled on a long-term storage solution. But, as Paul Thurrott said yesterday:

It's time to start comparing cloud storage services again, to start considering backup strategies yet again—and seriously, thanks a lot, Microsoft, what I really want to do is constantly reevaluate stuff that should just sit there and [email protected]#king work_.

Yep.Also, as a side note, this marks the official end of my previous philosophy of picking a platform and using the native services. That was obviously the incorrect strategy. From now on, I'm choosing services carefully, opting for the single-focus alternatives where they exist. No more jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none services for me.

I do occasionally learn, sometimes—as is the case now—the hard way.

The Santa Ana winds are back

And perhaps unsurprisingly, Raymond Chandler, the undisputed dean of L.A. noir, wrote the best description ever:

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana's that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."
—Raymond Chandler, Red Wind (opening paragraph)

66 Years of the German Democratic Republic

October 3 is celebrated in reunified Germany as the Day of German Unity. Four days later, October 7 was once observed as the national day of the German Democratic Republic. Every once in a while, it's good to remind ourselves that history is neither predetermined nor inevitable, and that things could have gone very, very differently…

The following article first appeared in and has been translated from the 6 October, 2015 edition of Neues Deutschland:

BERLIN, CAPITAL OF THE GDR - Days after the celebration on 3 October of the 25th anniversary of the peaceful accession of the former so-called West Germany to the German Democratic Republic on the Day of German Unity, the capital of the GDR is once again preparing for celebrations, this time for the 66th anniversary of the proclamation of the new and better German state that arose from the ashes of war.

Chairman of the State Council Egon Krenz and newly-appointed Deputy Chair Sahra Wagenknecht, who recently succeeded the late Lothar Bisky, were on hand at the Brandenburg Gate on 3 October for the observance of the day in 1989 that the Anti-Fascist Protective Barrier began to be dismantled after massive worker-led strikes following the collapse of the capitalist western economy led to the peaceful reunification of the western territories with the GDR. Observers from fraternal socialist nations such as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the People's Republic of Yugoslavia, the Socialist Republic of Romania, the Hungarian People's Republic, the People's Republic of Bulgaria, the Republic of Cuba, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and others were there as well to celebrate the victory of socialism.

Reflecting on the difficult times of the late 1980s, President of the USSR Mikhail S. Gorbachev observed in his remarks that "we did not know at the time how close the capitalist system was to collapse. We knew, of course, that it was historically inevitable, but the actions of the criminal and warmongering Reagan clique in the USA obscured their crises with their massive buildup of military and nuclear forces. When it finally failed, as was destined to happen, the peace-loving peoples of the GDR and their socialist brethren around the world were ready to welcome the workers of the west as they joined us in building a better, fairer society."

The German Democratic Republic that welcomed them was present and able to do so because of the foresight of its founders in establishing a new German state under the protection of its Soviet liberators. On 7 October 1949, Comrade Walter Ulbricht proclaimed the founding of the GDR from the steps of the old Rotes Rathaus. On 7 October 2015, millions of GDR citizens will joyously celebrate this event all over the Republic, but the main celebrations in the capital will take place under the gleaming television tower in the Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Capital of the GDR, with a review of the elite troops of the Felix Dzerzhinsky Guards Regiment and the National People's Army, in addition to representatives of the Free German Youth, the Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organisation, the Combat Groups of the Working Class, and representatives of the people's parties of our fraternal socialist allies from around the world.

In a first, Chairman of the State Council Egon Krenz has also invited those members of the United States Army's former "Berlin Brigade" who have completed their course of reeducation in the Soviet Union to participate in the celebrations on 7 October. Noting that the peaceful reunification of Berlin was only possible because of the restraint shown by the American, British and French forces, Chairman Krenz yesterday said that "we must remember with gratitude and welcome into the socialist family those American, French and British soldiers who chose to respect the German people's peaceful desire for liberation."

Following the 66th anniversary celebrations, Chairman Krenz will travel to Brussels for consultations with the European Commission on the pending dissolution of the European Union and its absorption into the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Signing of the final treaty papers is expected to take place next month in Moscow.

From San Ysidro to Roseburg

Today's news from Roseburg, Oregon was depressingly familiar. That community has joined an unenviable list of places like Columbine and Sandy Hook whose names are now synonyms for mass murder. I'm not going to write about that. I'm here to say a few words about how we've changed, and how we haven't.Back in 1984, in the San Diego suburb of San Ysidro, a gunman walked into the local McDonald's and killed 21 people in cold blood.At the time, I was an hourly manager at a McDonald's franchise about three hours north of there. You probably have no idea how hard the news hit the McDonald's corporate family. At the time, there had never been a killing in a McDonald's. We thought of ourselves as being islands of safety, a place for families to enjoy their Big Macs and French fries. That ended that July.

What you probably also don't know is how McDonald's responded. After an initial, dazed attempt to reopen, people realized that what had happened was such a shock to the system that it was inconceivable to continue on as before. That store was closed, the building razed, and the land given to the community for a park. A replacement was built down the road.

Here we are thirty-one years later, and in some ways not a thing has changed. There's been no significant gun legislation to curb the violence. We're told that we can't ban guns, that changing the law won't do any good, that people will find a way to get a gun no matter what. Funny how these same people usually make exactly the opposite argument about abortion and same-sex marriage.

What has changed is our response as regards the places where these things happen. Nobody would dream of closing Umpqua Community College, or even the individual building. Nobody would dream of closing Columbine High School. Instead, we'll clean up the blood, scrub the sidewalks, replace the carpeting, and move on. Perhaps McDonald's overreacted in 1984, but it was heartfelt and clearly seemed at the time the right thing to do.

But not now. Now, we've normalized the experience and come to think of it as commonplace. And we know it will happen again, soon, and the President will once again go on television and ask us to let our legislators know how we feel. Then, after a few hours or days, the media will move on to the latest Republican attempt to shut down the government or that day's quasi-fascist rabble-rousing from Donald Trump. And we will once again lament that sadly, in what was once the richest and freest country in the world, there is nothing that can be done.

Pathetic.

Random observations on returning to iPhone

Random observations on returning to an iPhone after a few years with Windows Phone:

  • You don't realize how many apps you use until you set up a phone as a new device. So. Much. Downloading.
  • Cortana sounds more natural than Siri.
  • The iPhone 6/6S is a reasonable size that I can live with. I'd still rather have a Plus, but supply issues are what they are and I needed a phone.
  • Touch ID is pretty damn great.
  • Folders in iOS are a lot less elegant than in Windows Phone.
  • Launch Center Pro is a lot less intuitive than it should be, but I'm learning.
  • Thank the gods that I can finally use Swype on an iPhone, because the stock keyboard still sucks out loud.
  • Rearranging icons is a major pain in the ass. They need to fire the obsessive-compulsive icehole who's responsible for keeping it the same (i.e., not fixing it).
  • Battery life is probably better than my iPhone 4, but nowhere near as good as my Lumia 1520. Hard to beat a 3400 mAh battery. Good thing I have an iPad charger at my desk at work.
  • The App Store seems to be more of a mess than I remember it being.
  • The Lightning connector may be an expensive proprietary piece of kit, but at least you can't try to jam it in the wrong way, like one always does with micro USB connectors.
  • For the App.net crowd: It's surprising to me which apps are still available, and which are broken by iOS 9 or otherwise no longer available. RIP Rivr and Felix.
  • I'm tempted to keep using the official Twitter app. At least it doesn't get rate-limited.

More observations to come. And if you're an iPhone user who wants to recommend an app, please feel free to contact me on Twitter or App.net.