Technological Evolution, Microsoft vs Apple

I’m writing this from my iPad Pro with the Smart Keyboard. It’s a beautiful experience. It’s also a natural evolution of where technology has been going.

This past week Microsoft has displayed that it understands this. Apple has not.

Writing here is not a perfect experience: I still think multitasking on iOS could benefit by some improvements. But I enjoy being able to reach up, touch the screen and do things. When I switch back to my MacBook Pro, I’ll invariably find myself reaching up to the screen to manipulate something.

There have been several innovations along the path of technological evolution that have sparked exponential adoption and further innovation.

“Evolutionary processes creates a capability and uses that capability to bring on the next stage.”

– Ray Kurzweil, TED (Minute 5:21)

There is a rabbinical tradition that on the sixth day, before sundown, God created the first pair of tongs–giving the world’s first blacksmith the necessary tool with which to make more. But it’s more likely that man iterated on his tools, building up to some sort of tong. This is how technology develops.

Similarly, with interfaces, we build off previous iterations of interfaces towards more efficient tools. Punch cards led to keyboards; command line interfaces led to GUIs; mice led to touchscreen.

“Progress of technical science is characterized by the fact: first, that more and more energy is utilized for human purposes, and secondly, that the transformation of the raw energies into useful forms of energy is attended by ever-increasing efficiency.”

– William Ostwald, Efficiency

Our tools progress towards being more efficient. That is what defines technological progress. Whatever issues that are lacking in touch interface are not because of it being less ideal an interface than command line (no, VIM is not better)–it is because of the implementation of the tool. Newtons were horrific, but iPhones are a beautiful experience.

Another concept Kurzweil talks about is exponential growth. Not only did RNA lead to the Cambrian period, it led to the Cambrian explosion. Not only that, but as far as we know, all cellular life has DNA, an evolutionary step past RNA. When a biological process is surpassed, it tends to be left behind. This is also true of technology. Our trains are not steam-powered anymore, nor do we use vacuum tubes in our computers.

iOS was originally forked off of OSX. It was done so because OSX was a solid platform, but somewhat over-bloated for the limited resources of the original iPhones. There were speculations about if/when they would be re-merged.

Microsoft has already done so with Windows. While I’m not a big Windows fan, I will admit that that was the right play and the proof of that is this past week’s tech announcements from both companies.

I’ve been an Apple fanboy for a very long time, it pains me to say this.

It is doubtful whether a contextual touchscreen on a keyboard provides added efficiency in your workflow–if it does, it is linear. This past year Apple has not demonstrated exponential growth, their iterations have been little more than linear, or catching up to parallel technologies. Waterproofing a watch, putting an accelerometer into a TV remote, adding zoom to a camera. These all add to the experience, but other tech is surpassing these technologies.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has been developing entirely new interfaces. Kinect tracks your movement, creating a whole new way to interact with games. Hololense will bring AR to a place where it can be useful.

The Surface Studio looks beautiful. They are embracing touch interface as the next step in the evolution of interfaces. It’s more than a linear step along the way–I don’t know if it’s exponential, but it shames a slightly augmented keyboard. It combines the power of a desktop with the interactive interface of a tablet. The result looks like a better experience than the sum of its parts. This is technological progress.

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Blood Toil Tears And Sweat

On May 10th 1940 Germany invaded Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands; Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom upon the resignation of Neville Chamberlain. The United Kingdom invaded Iceland, and Belgium declared a state of emergency.

As the new prime minister, Churchill was called on to form a wartime coalition government. On May 13, 1940 Winston Churchill gave his First Speech as Prime Minister to the House of Commons.

Why this speech?

World War II changed the face of the world. There were two possible paths ahead. One side represented division, discrimination and destruction in the name of making one nation “great” among the rest of the world. The other path, was fighting for it’s existence and against all the evils that their opponents stood for.

Churchill is one of the great orators of the 20th century and this speech captures so succinctly that moment in history… with parallels to today that are not lost on me.

We Choose To Go To The Moon

On September 12 1962 John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University where he declared his plan to send man to the moon within the decade.

I chose this as the first speech I would practice because it serves as a constant source of inspiration to me. This speech gives me chills each time I hear or read it, and it is the prime example, for me, of the power of speeches.

Why this speech?

Not only did President Kennedy cover so many of the important accomplishments of humanity, but he was able to put them into perspective.

50 years is hard enough to comprehend, but it is within a lifespan. He could have said “Less than 100 years ago we developed penicillin.” Instead, he said “less than a week ago.” A week in the context of 50 years is far more powerful than 100 years in context of 50,000 years. Most people can remember what they had for breakfast a week ago; while, I don’t know anyone who remembers first hand anything that happened 100 years ago.

Putting a man on the moon might have seemed impossible then, but when looking back over humanity’s accomplishments and seeing those accomplishments in the perspective of the exponential progression it took, it almost feels achievable.

That leads into the second piece I read from the speech, the why.

Reading this speech makes me want to be better, it plays chords on my soul reviving the sense of adventure I felt as a child when first discovering new things, new stories in books, hearing about new places and wanting to go there.

This speech speaks directly to the greater spirit of man, the transcendent urge to be, to conquer, and it channels that great desire towards one of the greatest achievements man could ever think of doing at that time. A challenge we haven’t achieved since.

And this speech has the power that it could do it. It could inspire man to reach that goal. and It did.

“For if Achillês is left alone to fight…” – Zeus Cloudgatherer

The literature of humanity that has stayed with us taps into the deepest part of how we perceive our existence. The stories that our ancestors have crafted and passed down to us resonated with them. The stories that made it down to us, made it through the filter of time because those stories said something important to each link the the chain from then until now.

Pondering this I recently read the Iliad for the first time, and then I read it again. One way that it resonated, surprised me.

Growing up I was never one of the athletic kids, but several of my close friends were, and thus I learned to play. There’s a unique excitement that engrosses you when you are participating in a game. I can still remember viscerally how deeply I wanted to win — especially during tournaments, and how it felt that all the powers of nature were conspiring for each event that happened during that game.

“You should pray to the everlasting gods yourself. You are no mere man.” Apollo to Aineias

– Iliad, book XX

Feeling this — while playing an intense game — it is 100% natural to pray to god, to request a favorable outcome to your game. Looking back 20 years later, or even a single month, most of those circumstances seem a silly catalyst for requesting divine intervention. But when you’re in the moment, heaven and earth should move for you to get that touchdown, or home run.

This affects spectating participants as it does the players. As a Red Sox fan (since before 2004) it’s clear to me that divine intervention is involved in these great games…

Achillês now cast his spear, and struck on the outermost ring, where the metal was thinnest and the hide thinnest behind. The Pelian lancewood ran through with a ringing sound. Aineias had crouched down holding up the shield; so the shaft passed over his back and stuck in the ground, still fast in the shield with the two layers torn apart. But he had escaped: he stood up dizzy and shaken when he saw that shaft sticking at his elbow. Achillês then drew sword and leaped at him with a shout. Aineias lifted a great big stone in his hand such as two men could not carry, as men go now, but he managed it easily alone. And now Aineias would have crashed down that stone on his helmet, or on that shield which had saved him before, and Peleidês would have chased and killed him with that sword; but Poseidon Earthshaker thought his time was come…

So Poseidon left them, and passed through the battle to the place where Aineias and Achillês were face to face. He drew a mist over the eyes of Achillês; he pulled out the spear from the shield of Aineias and laid it before the other’s feet, whisked up Aineias off the ground and hurled him through the air. Over the ranks of fighting men Aineias flew from the god’s hand, over the lines of horses, and alighted on the outskirts of battle where the Cauconians were getting ready for action.

– Iliad, book XX

This is exactly how I felt while engrossed in my games, praying for me or my team to win.

When you’re watching a Super Bowl and a long toss is sent, you can feel the entire stadium willing that ball to do one thing or another. There is little doubt in my mind that people are hoping for Great Earthshaker Poseidon, or whichever surrogate they pray to, to whisk the ball through the air into the hands of the right mythical hero to make that touchdown.

I got chills reading this next piece; having studied religious liturgy for a good part of my life, I hear clear echoes of my prayers from the Days of Awe.

But when the fourth time they drew near the two fountains, see now, the Father laid out his golden scales and placed in them two fates of death, one for Achillês and one for Hector. He grasped the balance and lifted it: Hector’s doom sank down, sank down to Hadês, and Apollo left him.

At that moment Athena was by the side of Achillês, and she said in plain words:

“Now you and I will win, my splendid Achillês! Now I hope we shall bring great glory to our camp before the Achaian nation, by destroying Hector, for all his insatiable courage. Now there is no chance that he can escape, not if Apollo Shootafar should fume and fret and roll over and over on the ground before Zeus Almighty! Rest and take breath, and I will go and persuade the man to stand up to you.”

– Iliad, book XXII

The imagery of scales is universal. This expression of scales balancing the fate of the two heroes of the Iliad echoes through every confrontation I witnessed, and every request I have ever made in any prayer.

When reading through the Iliad there were points where I could not fathom why this piece was so important, especially when lineage went on for pages. After finishing reading the work I understand more why we must study and cherish the great treasures passed down to us from ages past.

Image credit: Pietro da Cortona

The Privacy / Convenience Polarity is a Myth

There is a myth, that if you want to have privacy, it will be at the expense of convenience; and if you want convenience, it will be at the expense of privacy.

They say that is the way things have to be, but it really doesn’t have to be this way.

Open up your iPhone and go to settings, then open up Privacy > Location Services and see how many apps are using your location “always”. See how many of those apps were just defaulted to “always” and how many require to always have your location. Then ask yourself which of those apps actually NEED to ALWAY have your location?

Here is how this is justified. Let’s use a location recommendation service, like Foursquare or Yelp, as an example.

The pitch is, this location recommendation app gives you value by finding all the great places your friends like.

However, In order for you to benefit from that data you need to enable the location services on your phone. The app then tracks where you, as well as your friends, go. It records all the places you “check in” to. Based on where your friends “check in” and based on the ratings other people who frequent that venue give, you can get the best recommendations everywhere you go.

This app can then sells to advertisers the data it collects. This is the app’s business model. The app sees that you frequent a specific gym. It can then go to the gym across the street and sell them the opportunity to advertise to you, as you go to their competitor. That’s how they pay the bills.

People will tell you that this is the way it NEEDS to be if you want the convenience of getting the best recommendations. 

The problem with this approach is that the more independent services that manage your sensitive data, the more you are open to vulnerabilities. Do you know what systems each individual place that handles your data uses to protect that data?

Why should you care?

In many situations, like what my favorite pizza order is, I am less susceptible to being hurt by a breach of privacy. But that’s not the case with ALL personal data.

What happens when a company that collects your location data goes out of business or is acquired? Any agreement it might have had with you vis-a-vis privacy is can be ignored. When Internet companies go out of business, their data is often the only valuable asset they have left.

Or from the comments of the CDT before the FCC.

Consumers’ dissatisfaction is likely to be heightened when the advertisements arrive from third parties with whom the consumer has not established any relationship. Without awareness of how their location information is being used and who has access to it, consumers will feel as though there is omnipresent surveillance of their activities by companies they do not know. The invasiveness of such advertising increases when the volume and frequency of messages is also outside of their control.

The real issue is that Apple, Android, and Microsoft, the gatekeepers to the location services on our devices, haven’t built their systems properly.

There is a concept in computer science called Data Encapsulation.

Data encapsulation, also known as data hiding, is the mechanism whereby the implementation details of a class are kept hidden from the user. The user can only perform a restricted set of operations on the hidden members of the class by executing special functions commonly called methods. – Wikipedia

(Note: “User” here refers to the classes or methods manipulating the data, i.e. the user of the data.)

This actually is a best practice of software architecture. When your code knows too much about the other components that means that those sections of code are probably dependent upon that knowledge, which means that your code is inflexible, fragile, rigid, and more likely to break.

Let me show you another way location, and other sensitive data could be designed.

Stripe is a payment processor. It’s my favorite to use, because they clearly care about both security and ease of implementation. I.e. they care about the people using their service.

One of the interesting aspects of how they implement their system is that if you use them, your server never has any idea what the purchaser’s credit card number is.

This is a really good thing for developers. If your system handles credit cards you have to make sure your system is PCI compliant otherwise you’re opening yourself up to all sorts of legal fun. Making your system PCI compliant is not easy. Which means that implementing e-commerce can be a challenge… Unless you work with a company like Stripe that already solved that problem for you.

How does Stripe make sure that your server never touches a credit card number?

When you submit a form, the fields in the form have to be named. If the fields are not named the browser simply will not pass the data in those fields to the server. It can’t, because it doesn’t know how to label that data.

Stripe takes advantage of this “feature” and hijacks the submit button. When a purchaser on your site puts in their credit card information Stripe collects all the data in the form securely sends it to their servers and sends back a token and places that token in a proper form field on your site.

Once the data is submitted, the browser doesn’t send the credit card data, because it isn’t named, but it does sent over the token that Stripe created for this interaction.

As a developer you can look up information about that transaction, even about the purchaser. But you can’t have the full credit card number. The purchaser is protected, because there is an impartial third party who is responsible for keeping the credit card information secure. And the site is protected as it does not have to hold sensitive data. But can have all the benefits as if it did save the credit card number. The site has usage statistics, purchase statistics, all the bells and whistles.

This is the beauty of data encapsulation.

Location data should work this way too.

For starters. There should not be an option for services to have location data always on, by default. I’m saying this as a developer fascinated by location-centric apps. Location data should be as protected as credit card information. There is no excuse for that.

The creators of the operating systems should be the gatekeepers of our location data. If they were serious about security this should be the next front line. They already collect and record the data if it is enabled, they should be the only ones.

Apple Pay, Google Wallet, these are all big targets because they have huge revenue potential. They also make things safer. A pay-per-use location API would be too (there are many affordable ways to make pay-per-use services, see Mailchimp.)

There should be a PCI SCC equivalence for location data. There should be a council looking out for your privacy and making sure that others hold to those standards.

This probably won’t happen, people don’t seem to care enough.

But don’t listen when people tell you it has to work this way.

Image Credit: Dizzy Fripper

Say: “Alexa, turn on the living room lights”

Say it. No, really. Say it aloud.

You might feel silly the first time. But the second time it feels great. Especially because Amazon Echo actually works.

We were sold the hype of Siri. Sadly, Siri just doesn’t have the knowledge to understand conversational requests, nor the power to fulfill them. The Washington Post scooped the imminent release of Viv this past week, Siri’s younger sibling that hopefully will work.

But that power already exists with the Echo. Whether Viv will be able to leapfrog Alexa and takes over the market is speculation at this point. These musings are about virtual assistants finally coming to age.

First, what makes Amazon Echo so powerful is the combination of:

  • Hearing you from everywhere; you don’t have to shout “hey Siri” three times.
  • The ability to understand natural language; you can speak naturally. You don’t have to learn boolean logic, like we did to become proficient with Google.
  • Alexa has skills. There is a phenomenal API that Amazon is actively cultivating with developers at hackathons, and funding. Each week I get an email with updates about how Alexa has learned something new.

<aside>A caveat on the first point. That’s somewhat scary, how Alexa can hear everything. A friend of mine set up a network filter to see what is actually transmitted back to the mothership. He said that the Echo only sends small packets of data when you say the wake word “Alexa”. Amazon confirms this on their FAQs, also they confirm that you can delete the history of your searches, and it will actually be deleted from their servers.</aside>

Previously when I read about smart home devices it sounded quaint, a hobby to try sometime; like drones. But try saying “Alexa, turn on the living room lights” and imagine your living room lights turning on.

It’s not about being lazy. You can turn your whole home off in one go. If you have multiple lamps in a room, like we do, you can turn them all on or off at will — with a phrase.

But virtual assistants are about a whole lot more than living room lights.

Technology has created a lot of opportunities by making our lives easier. When I was younger and complained about typing a paper for school my mother told me about how she wasn’t allowed more than 3 typos on a page. If she made more than 3 typos on a page, she would have to resubmit the whole paper.

How much spontaneous creativity do you think happened in those papers when you had to retype entire pages just to move a paragraph around? That’s the power of word processors, of technology.

Factories have been implementing robots to do menial, and dangerous, tasks. This is paralleled in humanity’s move to an agrarian based society; which, freed up enough time for humanity to focus on creating culture and technology.

Virtual assistants are finally coming of age and I’m excited to see where they go from here.

Pondering Sam Harris’ thoughts on digital backdoors

Since my last post about encryption vs. security the public debate has exploded due to Tim Cook’s response to the request by the FBI to create a back door in an Apple device.

In his most recent podcast Sam Harris weighed in as well. I always look forward to Harris’ perspective on a topic. He is thorough, approaches the topic from an unbiased (as much as anyone can) perspective, and creates interesting thought experiments that uncover angles of the topic at hand that often I had missed.

This case is no different. Harris came out against Cook’s position, admitting though, that this was only his first go at the topic. He brought several points which I overlooked in my previous essay, but I think he overlooked the point that I brought in my first go. His initial analysis deepened my thoughts about the topic so I thought I’d write a follow up bringing his points and adding a few of my own.

<aside>

I’d like to start out by noting that the FBI has not asked Apple to create a backdoor to their encryption; rather, they are asking for a way for them to brute force attack the PIN on the iPhone. This is an important distinction.

Creating a backdoor to an implementation of encryption would fundamentally undermine all communications and data using that implementation. This is binary, you either have secure encryption or you don’t.

While their request is not for backdoor into encryption, their request did spark a debate on the overall greater topic.

</aside>

Harris presents the issue thusly: The security system built into the iPhones is so strong that not even Apple can get into their iPhones. The problem is that there may be information buried inside the phone in question that can shed light on the San Bernardino shootings. Is there a greater network of collaborators planning something? Who were the shooters in contact with? He asks: How valuable would it be to see what’s inside the San Bernardino cellphones, which jihadists are among their friends?

Harris deepens the stakes by pointing out: there have been cases of murders that have been solved because people recorded their own murder and left their phone unlocked. There have been other cases where law enforcement knows that the victim was texting with someone up until their murder, potentially with their murderer, and they cannot find out who it was because the phone was locked.

The thought experiment Harris brings here is whether one has the right to build a room that’s impregnable. A room that only you can get access to; no one on earth, no matter what public interest would be served, can get access to it, even in the event of your death or a court order.

Harris states: “People are imagining that they have a right which never existed, and could never exist in the real world.”

My issue with this analogy is that cellphones are not just rooms that store things we want to keep safe. They effectively track every aspect of our lives. They’re always listening, tracking every movement, every communication. The problem, as I see it, is that the cellphone tracks its owner in a way that has never existed in the past either.

This is where the differentiation between what the FBI is asking for and the greater debate about encryption is important. I agree here with Harris that if the FBI is asking for a better way to hack into a specific phone without actually undermining all encryption for everyone, then yes, a court should be able to order Apple to unlock a specific physical device that law enforcement has in custody.

Basic Contractarianism: as members of a society we have given up certain natural freedoms in exchange for protection. We expect law enforcement to protect us, and when we break the law we are breaking our contract. The impregnable room breaks this contract as well.

On the other hand, Apple is a multinational company where if they are forced into opening a phone it creates a precedence for other countries that don’t necessarily have the same social contact based on fair rights that we do. This is an entirely different issue that has been pulled into the encryption debate as pertains to multinational companies and government authority.

Enabling a dormant backdoor into cellphones that can be opened, at will, by law enforcement anywhere across all boundaries is a very different issue from opening a specific device that requires physical access to unlock. This, as I have already stated, is a lot closer to installing dormant cameras into everyone’s homes that can be turned on at will, than it is to giving a skeleton key to all private safes. The problem with how technology works is that these boundaries aren’t necessarily enforceable.

We already know that this is what law enforcement is already doing with similar tools. But even if they are following the spirit and letter of the law pertaining to civilian surveillance, this type of potential immediate access to the innermost lives of everyone goes far beyond any previous potential power law enforcement has had, and it changes us.

While it may be “a right which never existed,” technology has enabled surveillance in a way that has never existed before. I think more than ever we need to have this discussion and think about what rights to privacy we have.

A second analogy Harris brings is the idea of a drug that makes your DNA unanalyzable. In this scenario, you can potentially do whatever you like, and if you take this drug, your DNA will never be traced back to you.

Again, like the previous analogy, this does not get into the broader discussion of undermining the security of encryption. This is a closer analogy to the greater discussion though, as I mentioned before: cellphones track every aspect of our lives.

I think a different question to ask is: If scientists are able to read someone’s brain, would a court order supersede the right for someone not to incriminate themselves? Let’s say we develop the ability to convert our consciousness digitally and back it up. Would that ability give law enforcement the right to have access to our thoughts? Will there be a thought police?

We’re clearly living in interesting times, philosophically. These are important questions to debate. They should be debated publicly. As I mentioned before, I always look forward to Harris’ perspective on a topic. This is no different, and I’m looking forward to hearing his further thoughts. I don’t think Harris is entirely wrong, but it is clear that this attempt at the subject was cursory and possibly missed some important factors.