Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Poison Apple

poisonappleThere are about a million reasons why I hate my iPhone, but this one pretty much sums it all up.

On my phone, I’ve got quite a few files that were not downloaded from any of my other devices. These include pictures I’ve taken with the phone itself, pdfs I’ve downloaded through the phone’s browser, etc.

Of course, I’d like to have backups of all these files. And of course Apple makes this as difficult as possible by pushing me to use its abysmal iTunes software for creating the backup.

Now here is what iTunes does: I have photo files with names like IMG_0840.jpg — which, if not terribly descriptive, is at least immediately recognizable as a photo. I have pdfs with names like Dirac.QuantumMechanics.pdf, which is a nice, easily recognizable name. I download everything to my computer via iTunes, and here is a partial directory listing of what I get:

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Worthless Cash

The future, apparently, has not quite yet arrived.

Square Cash promises to be the easy way to transfer money over the Internet. To send you $50, I just send you an email with subject line “$50″ and a cc: to — whereupon Square Cash, upon receiving the cc:, moves $50 from my bank account to yours. (First time users get an email from Square asking for their debit card numbers so the transfer can be accomplished.) Sounds like the easiest thing in the world. And it’s free.

Unfortunately, it’s worth about what you pay for it. My experience using Square Cash multiple times over the past several days indicates that, more often than not, Square transfers $50 one direction — and then a few hours later transfers it back in the opposite direction, so that on balance, no money changes hands. When this happens, you get an email from Square saying the reverse transaction was triggered by a “problem”. No further explanation.

Emails to Square are met with standard Customer Service gobbledygook that ignores key questions such as “Why is this happening?” and “What can I do to make it stop happening?” and “Going forward, can I count on it to stop happening?”. (It’s just happened yet again, so apparently the answer to the last question is “No”.)

One feels a little churlish complaining about the quality of a free service. On the other hand, I’d like to spare others the frustrating experience of dealing with Square, never knowing when a transaction is going to be permanent, and getting no useful answers from the powers that be. (All communication is by email; Square is apparently too advanced a company to use phones.)

My advice: These guys are amateurs. Stick with Paypal.

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What Went Wrong

Okay. I’ve never worked as a tech geek, so I’m speculating from ignorance here. Some of you can probably speak with more authority. Perhaps we’ll hear from the reliably acerbic and insightful Doctor Memory, who knows whereof he speaks on this subject (and several others). But to my uneducated eye, it appears that Arnold Kling has got this pretty much dead-on right: The Obamacare mess “is not a technical screw-up, and it will not be fixed by technical people. It is an organizational screw-up.”

What you had here, among other things (and almost of this is paraphrasing Kling) is:

  • A bunch of people who had never worked in the insurance business appointing themselves executive officers of the world’s largest insurance brokerage.
  • Nobody at the top with the authority to trim features as needed to keep the project manageable.
  • No mechanism for the technical staff to challenge the managers, because all of the management decisions were essentially set in stone before the technical staff — i.e. the outside contractors — came on board.
  • No clear lines of authority and acceptability.

Private enterprises frequently fail, often for one or more of these reasons. But sometimes they succeed, and that’s largely because sometimes they get this stuff right. The government, by contrast, has no mechanism for getting it right. The people at the top are not industry experts, the features are largely determined by the legislative process, which takes place with absolutely no feedback from the tech geeks who are going to have to implement it, the political system pretty much forces you to put the technical part of the project out for bid and to parcel it out among multiple contractors, eliminating any possibility of ongoing negotiation between the managers and the techies, and on top of all that, nobody’s livelihood is on the line.

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The Best Toy Ever, Reimagined

In The Big Questions, I wrote about an absolutely wonderful toy I had as a child. The Digi-Comp I was a completely mechanical computer; it ran on springs and rubber bands, and you built it yourself from a kit. You programmed it by placing little plastic cylinders (cut from drinking straws) on appropriate tabs, and you pushed a lever to run the program. The back of the computer was completely exposed, so you could watch the cylinders and straws and rubber bands push each other around — and see for yourself how those motions implemented the logic of your program and produced a result. As I wrote in The Big Questions, a child with a Digi-Comp I is a child with deep insight into what makes a computer work.

I am delighted that the Digi-Comp I is, after a 40 year hiatus, back on the market, though the modern version substitutes laminated binders board (i.e. high quality cardboard) for plastic. There is, I think, no better gift for a kid who likes computers, or likes logic, or likes knowing how things work.

Now an old friend (who shares my fond memories of this toy) writes to point me to yet another reincarnation of the DigiComp I — as a Lego project! Way cool.

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Paging Diogenes

Chapter 8 of The Big Questions is called “Diogenes’s Nightmare” and argues that: 1) In a world of honest truthseekers, there would be no disagreements about matters of fact; 2) In the world we inhabit, disagreements about matters of fact are ubiquitious; therefore 3) in the world we inhabit, there must be precious few honest truthseekers.

If you’re looking to ferret out one of those rare creatures, your best candidate might be a man who argues with eloquence and passion against subsidies for the industry where he makes his living. Meet David Bergeron.

David is the founder and president of Sundanzer, which supplies solar powered refrigerators worldwide, based on technology developed by David under contract to NASA. He also really really really understands why subsidizing solar technology is a terrible idea. And when I met him last week, he impressed me so much that I invited him to make a rare guest post here at The Big Questions. So without further ado:

Solar Subsidies: Misdirecting Industry and Consumers

A Guest Post


David Bergeron

In a recent Economist on-line debate, the affirmative motion “This house believes that subsidizing renewable energy is a good way to wean the world off fossil fuels” was surprisingly defeated.

In his closing remarks, the moderator softened his strident opposition to the negative case, even admitting that “subsidizing renewable energy, is wasteful and perhaps inadequate to address climate-change concerns.”

Beyond the Climate Debate

The debate, indeed, reopened the question whether anthropogenic greenhouse-gas forcing was a serious planetary environmental concern. But such focus short-changed what I think is the more important question for the Economist. Not only are the renewable-energy subsidies (such as for solar) wasteful and potentially insufficient, they are outright diabolical if indeed there is a looming environmental crisis.

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Uh Oh

How secure is Internet security? A team of researchers recently set out to crack the security of about 6.6 million sites around the Internet that use a supposedly “unbreakable” cryptosystem. The good news is that they succeeded only .2% of the time. The bad — and rather shocking — news — is that .2% of 6.6 million is almost 13,000. That’s 13,000 sites with effectively no security. The interesting part is what went wrong. It’s a gaping security hole that I’d never stopped to consider, but is obvious once it’s pointed out.

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We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

I haven’t been able to find the exact quote, but unless my memory is playing tricks, Martin Gardner once posed the question “What modern artifact would most astonish Aristotle?”, and concluded that the answer was a Texas Instruments programmable calculator that could be taught to execute simple series of instructions. That was, roughly, 1975.

Here is what my iPhone does: It listens to the radio and tells me the name of the artist, song and album. It scans bar codes and tells me where to get the same item cheaper. It gives me step by step directions to anyplace I want to go. It points me to the nearest public bathroom. It recommends restaurants, based on cuisine, price, and proximity. It plays any music I want it to play, and it recommends new music based on what it’s learned about my preferences. It shows me a photograph of the entire earth and lets me slowly (or quickly) zoom in on my (or your) front porch. It takes pictures. It takes videos. It lets me edit those pictures and videos. It photographs 360 degree panoramas. It plays movies. It plays TV shows. It displays pretty much any book, newspaper or magazine I want to read. It reminds me where I parked my car. It lets me draw rough sketches of diagrams with my fingers and makes them look professional. It allows me to accept credit cards. It takes dictation. It checks the stock market or the weather with the push of a button. It reminds me of my appointments. It lets me browse the Web. It shows me my email. It locates and summons nearby taxicabs. It turns itself into a carpenter’s level. It turns itself into a flashlight. It makes phone calls. It makes video calls. And, oh yes — it has a calculator.

Now who would have been more astonished? Aristotle confronted with Martin Gardner’s calculator, or the Martin Gardner of 1975 confronted with my iPhone? I’m going to say it’s a close call.

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Video Arcade

So after futzing around with one clunky inadequate free product after another, I finally plunked down an amazingly reasonable $59 for the AVS4you software suite, which unlike everything else I’ve tried, actually works, and works well. This has allowed me, pretty much painlessly, to re-create much better versions of some of the videos that I’ve posted here in the past. (Better, that is, in terms of quality, and in terms of format, and in terms of file size.)

There is still, of course, the inevitable tradeoff between better quality on the one hand and less bandwidth on the other. I think I’ve found the sweet point, but am still experimenting.

The current batch of experiments is here. If these download too slowly, or are frustrating to watch for other reasons (other than, perhaps, the content, which is another matter) I’d like to know about it. If they work for you, I’ll be glad to know that too.

PS: It seems crystal clear that these work much better (in the sense of not stalling) in .flv format than as, say, .mp4, even when the flv files are much bigger, and I have the vague sense that everybody in the world except me understands exactly why. Do educate me.

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