My thoughts on the Apple/FBI terrorist iPhone unlocking conundrum

My initial reaction to Apple fighting the court order to unlock the terrorist’s iPhone was “Good for Apple. Doing anything that could reduce my privacy is bad!” And lots of the breathless news reports continued to make me think that way with all the talk of backdoors and such.

But then I started reading articles in more technical press and I see that the issue is a lot more nuanced (and way more nuanced than Donald Trump’s absurd call for a boycott – didn’t he learn when people called for boycotts of his enterprises?).

It seems that the FBI isn’t asking Apple to unlock the phone, but to give it the tools by which the FBI can unlock the phone (and only this phone). They want Apple to make a special version of iOS tailored to that phone only that drops the policy of erasing the phone after 10 failed PIN entries and they want this new iOS to accept PIN entries quickly rather than enforcing significant delays after failed PIN entries. This would allow the FBI to unlock the iPhone quickly by trying the 10,000 possible PIN combinations several per second (via a debugging interface).

So once I learned that, I thought that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if Apple complied, because this custom version of iOS would only work on that phone and, if a bad guy got ahold of it and changed it to work on another phone, the digital signature wouldn’t match, so it couldn’t be loaded on the other phone. So Apple wasn’t creating a terrible security hole that could be exploited by governments, corporations, criminals, etc.

And then what I think is the real problem hit me: If Apple shows they can (help) unlock this iPhone, then they will be inundated by court orders to unlock iPhones. Every time someone disappears, the police will ask a court to force Apple to unlock their phone to see if they’d been messaging someone suspicious. If grandma dies, her relatives will want her phone unlocked in case there were photos or other information they want. And you know there will be judges that will grant such orders. So if Apple goes along this once with this seemingly reasonable case, they (and Samsung and Google and everyone else) will have to do it every day. The floodgates will open and the court orders will never end. And that’s not the business Apple or any of them want to be in.

So how do we solve this? Maybe there are compelling reasons that a phone needs to be unlocked, and this case is as good an example as any. But I don’t think a court order is the answer. As Apple says, we need a public discussion, and we probably need new laws that define exactly when unauthorized unlocking is appropriate (and I mean “unauthorized” because the unlocking is being done without permission of the original setter of the passcode). That could avoid the stream of arbitrary court orders. If the lawful reasons for unlocking are broad enough, then Apple can just set up a side business that unlocks iPhones for $10,000 or $50,000. That would deter common street criminals from using it, but if the information on the phone is that important, then it’s totally worth it.

The Current FAA Drone Registration Doesn’t Address Drones Very Much

I registered my drone. Well, actually, I registered myself as a drone owner. Because the FAA mandated that we all register our drones, I went to the FAA UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) website to register my DJI Phantom 3 Pro (which is a really nifty drone). It turns out that only US citizens can register drones. So green card holders, visa holders, visitors, and illegal immigrants don’t have to register their drones. But since I’m a citizen, I created my account, typed in my name, address, phone number, and credit card info, which resulted in a registration ID that I am to mark on my drone. There were no questions about how many drones I have, nor what type, nor even the serial number(s). What this means is that I registered myself, putting my information into yet another government database that will become public information sometime, thus allowing advertisers and fraudsters yet another way to get my info. And, of course, if the site is ever hacked, the info will get out even quicker.

I had to put my credit card info in, because drone (owner) registration costs $5, though that fee is waved for a while. Rather than just not charging me and needing my credit card info, I will be charged, then refunded the $5, which seems to be the least efficient way to do it. Someone is losing money on those two transactions, whether it is the government or the credit card company or both, but such things aren’t free.

So now that I’m registered and when I mark my drone, what good will it do? Unless someone crashes their drone while doing some forbidden activity and the police get the ID number, there’s no way to track a rogue drone to its owner. Most of the cases we heard about on the news where drones were flying near firefighters and emergency personnel (or spying into windows) didn’t have the drone being recovered by law enforcement. Instead, the owners flew the drones away, so nobody could see the ID numbers.

So in my opinion, the current registration scheme doesn’t do much to match drones with owners, except in cases where the drone crashes, but it has added a new bureaucracy at the FAA with user fees to help support it. There are much better alternatives to this ineffective system, and I’d bet drone makers and owners would be better served by them. I have suggestions:

Most modern fancy drones have one or more radio transceivers as well as GPS positioning in them. The drone receives commands from the controller and sends back status information. Many drones also send back camera video, which is a reasonable high data rate. So they have fairly powerful radios that can send for half a mile or more. I suggest that every few seconds, that radio could send out identifying information as well as the drone’s position and maybe even the takeoff/landing coordinates on a designated frequency. This would be sort of like IFF beacons on aircraft, and would let law enforcement know which drones are nearby, where they are, and where their operator is. That’s information that can be used if the drone enters airspace it shouldn’t or causes a nuisance. Perhaps this could be added to existing drones via a firmware update, but could certainly be mandated for all drones sold after a certain date. Of course the drone manufacturers would have to be on board, but I think it is in their best interest to make sure the hobby maintains a safe and lawful reputation.

If the drone manufacturers think making changes to the in-flight radio is dangerous and could compromise flight safety, the handheld control unit also has powerful transceivers and could do the job nearly as well. It sends commands to the drone and receives telemetry as well as the video stream, so its radio could send the ID/position beacon without interfering with flight safety.

In either case, a technical solution would provide information that is much more useful. Even better, it would do so for all drones, not just those owned by US citizens who have registered. I think the drone hobby is fun and always take care when flying my drone, but I can understand the need for regulations. I just think the regulations should make sense and be effective.

Microsoft Surface Book First Impressions

I got my new Microsoft Surface Book last night and have decidedly mixed impressions of it. The hardware seems top notch, while the operating system and software are much worse than expected. If only Microsoft were a company that primarily made operating systems and software, I’m sure this sort of thing wouldn’t happen. Oh, wait…

So the first thing I noticed is how heavy the thing is, at least in its shipping box. It turns out that the Surface Book itself is not very heavy (on the order of 3 pounds, so heavy for a tablet, but not bad for a thin laptop), but the power supply brick, while small, must be lined with lead, because it is heavy! The pen is also surprisingly substantial, and feels much more solid than the plastic pen of my Surface Pro that I’m writing on now. Even the box the unit came in weighs as much as the Surface Book, it seems.

So the Surface Book is a very well crafted piece of hardware, with its nifty hinge and detachable tablet, it is very clever and very solid. I was very impressed to get an Apple-like experience in taking it out of the box and setting it up. Then I had to find the power button. It is hidden at the top left of the screen, rather than on the keyboard like most laptops. I realize that the tablet (really the computer) is separate from the unit, but I think it would have helped to have an additional power button on the keyboard section. (Now we’re talking like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Enterprise which had the dockable saucer section and engineering section – the Surface Book has a dockable tablet and keyboard section.)

Once I found the power button and did the simple setup for the OS, I set a PIN, since that’s what Microsoft seems to prefer rather than a password. I don’t know if I think it is a good idea, but since it is my personal machine, OK, I’ll do it. That’s when things went south. I also renamed the machine and rebooted. Well, it froze when I tried to log in. Doing a hard power off got control of the machine again, and it seemed to work OK. But logging in is really slow compared to my several year old Surface Pro. The new machine should be superior in every way, but Windows 10 on my old machine seems snappier.

Then I undocked the tablet portion and tried to use the pen. Windows knew the pen was there and where it was pointing, but completely ignored any input from the pen, including taps, presses, right clicks (there’s a button the pen for that), etc. I imagine there’s some sort of dumb setting in Windows that says “Use the pen for art only, ignore attempts to manage Windows with it” but I haven’t found it yet. Now, pen control of Windows is something that Microsoft has been doing very well for 10 years, starting with the original Tablet PCs, which I used and loved. For this simple thing not to work correctly out of the box is truly stunning.

So now the machine is sitting at home and downloading updates and firmware fixes that will hopefully address these issues. I look forward to setting it up to be a useful machine over the weekend. I am disappointed with the poor experience the software provided out of the box. Microsoft is still behind Apple in that respect.

iPhone 6s+ Video Tests

I recently got an iPhone 6s+ and wanted to see how good the 4K video is, so I took a few yesterday at Treasure Island Park. Since these are coming to you via YouTube, they’ve all been processed and will not quite have the quality of the originals. I look forward to checking them out on the Hiperwall this week.

And finally a test of the SloMo capability. This was shot at 720p/240 FPS. I’m curious how YouTube will handle it. (It turns out that YouTube seems not to respect the SloMo at all and just plays it normally, presumably discarding all those extra frames.)

The Apple Pencil: A Less Cynical View

Apple announced, among other things yesterday, the iPad Pro with support for a stylus called the Apple Pencil. This has the Internet Cynics Brigade doubled over in laughter as they post meme pictures with Steve Jobs saying that if you see a stylus or a task manager, they’ve done it wrong. They’re also busy posting pictures of how the iPad Pro with its keyboard cover looks a bit like the Microsoft Surface Pro with its kickstand and Type Cover (and for the record, that’s what I’m writing this post on – a 2 year old Surface Pro with a Type Cover). And yet other geniuses are claiming that because Android has phones with stylus support (like the excellent Samsung Galaxy Note series), Apple is just copying.

To that last bunch, I’d like to remind them of the Newton, but that was probably before they were born. Apple had a stylus-based tablet back in the the late 90s. Yes really. I still have my Newton MessagePad 2000, and I really loved it. Until Steve Jobs killed it. But the Newton was great, despite Doonesbury and the press making fun of it. The handwriting recognition was pretty good, and the ability to take and file notes was terrific. Apple had to invent ways to copy and paste text using the stylus, so they did, and it was very clever and worked well. I could also mention the many Palm PDAs I had over the years that used a stylus. So for those that think Apple stole the idea of a tablet with a stylus from any current competitor, think again.

Now, on to the real question: Is an iPad with a stylus useful?

The short answer is maybe, but perhaps not right away.

I’ve been using tablets with a stylus for a long time, and I really like them. I bought a very early Tablet PC and loved it. I could take notes on it, give lectures by writing on the screen or marking up content while sending to a projector, etc. Microsoft’s handwriting recognition is great, and these days, OneNote is a terrific tool on a stylus-based PC. When my first Tablet PC died, I bought a new one and used it for years. Then I bought a Surface Pro and am still using that. I love being able to write on the screen with the stylus! Even my terrible handwriting is searchable in OneNote. And marking up research papers was so great on screen rather than on paper.

The difference between a Surface Pro and an iPad however, is twofold. First, the sensors in the screen are very precise on the Surface Pro so the stylus registers precisely, whereas the sensors in existing iPads (not the iPad Pro) are much more coarse, since they’re designed for finger tracking. I’ve used a stylus with my iPad, and it isn’t a great experience, as it isn’t precise enough to write well. Second is the software support. As I already mentioned, Microsoft has a long history of handwriting recognition, so stylus support is top-notch. Apple had excellent handwriting recognition support on the Mac (presumably inherited from Newton technology), but that hasn’t made an appearance in 10 years or so. So that means Apple will either have to resurrect that technology for iPad Pro or it won’t be a good note-taking device.

Since it looks like they are more intending it for artists and for “professionals,” handwriting recognition may not be a priority, in which case, it will be support from 3rd party Apps that will define whether the Pencil is a success or not. Since I’m not an artist, I can’t speak to drawing on a tablet with a stylus, but I could imagine it would be a good experience, and there’s no reason to believe Apple won’t get that experience right.

For all the people making fun of the $100 price tag of the Pencil, I too think it is a bit much. A stylus came with my Surface Pro, though a replacement lists for $50. I don’t know if the Pencil is twice as good as my stylus, but it probably isn’t outrageously overpriced if you have need of it.

In short, I can’t predict the success (or not) of the Apple Pencil, but I’m not their initial target audience. I can say that using a stylus with a tablet has its uses, and if the software support is there, the experience can be excellent, as it is with my Surface Pro. But I don’t think it is the huge joke that the Internet seems consumed with today.

Information overload, yet too little information

We live in a world that has more information available online than ever before. Granted, much of it is unreliable or useless, but even the small fraction that is valuable is more voluminous than most people could have imagined even a few years ago. But the problem is that a lot of local information that should be available in an information-based society is missing.

Last night, for example, a (presumably) law enforcement helicopter circled a canyon in our neighborhood for 10 or 15 minutes at 2:30 AM. Since I know the police don’t wake neighborhoods unless there’s a reason, surely they were looking for something or someone that needed to be found quickly. My first thought was wondering if there was a criminal on the loose and that we should be extra careful and re-check all the doors and windows. It could also have been that they were looking for a missing hiker or similar. But there was no way to know. And even this morning, there’s no way to know, because none of the local news outlets, nor the city’s website or Twitter feed, have mentioned the helicopter and why it was there.

Now that delivering information is trivially easy using Facebook or Twitter or even an events page that Google can index, it seems crazy not to report events that affect hundreds or thousands of people, like a helicopter searching and waking a neighborhood in the process. Whatever agency was doing the search could have tweeted or posted, and by morning, Google would have indexed it, so any searches for helicopter in my area within the last 24 hours would have produced the information. If the police are hunting a suspect and don’t want to give away clues, then I can understand deliberate delays in providing information, but it should be put out hours after the fact.

My point is that we need more information of a local nature on the Internet. Cities, counties, and agencies should be keeping their citizens up to date better. Once this flood of information is unleashed, we will need new smart agents to process it and summarize it for us This has already happened with traffic apps (just presenting the traffic that is relevant to us out of all the traffic data available), so there is precedence, and maybe even a market for smart personal assistant apps that aren’t as useless as the current crop (Siri, Cortana, Alexa, etc.).

“Hey Siri Give Me a Hint”

I’m sure everyone who has an iPhone has asked Siri “Hey Siri give me a hint” after the announcement of the upcoming Apple event that will presumably announce new iPhones. If you haven’t, give it a try – some of the results are pretty cute.

If I were Microsoft, however, I would fix Cortana up so that if anyone asked “Hey Cortana give me a hint,” it would reply “No need to buy into all the hype” or something similar. Same with Amazon: “Hey Alexa…” You get the idea. I don’t know if Google Now has enough personality to give a snarky reply, but maybe something clever could be done.

I’m personally looking forward to seeing what Apple announces. I love my iPhone 6+, so we’ll see if they have anything compelling enough to want me to upgrade. But I think Microsoft Cortana and Amazon Echo are cool too, so they should be able to have fun with Apple’s Siri gimmicks.

Pictures and video of the aircraft fighting the Laguna Canyon Fire

Yesterday afternoon, we became aware something was going on, because there was a jet flying very low around the neighborhood. Then we saw the smoke and other aircraft circling what we later learned was a brush fire in Laguna Canyon.

The skill of these pilots was amazing as they dipped into the canyon and came back out.

Click on the photos below for a larger view.

And a video of the jet air tanker making a run at the canyon to drop fire retardant.

Amazon Echo is surprisingly handy

I set up my (or rather my wife’s) Amazon Echo last night. I have a hard time not calling the Amazon “Alexa,” because that’s how you address it. You say “Alexa play some rock music” and it does so.

The Echo is a black cylinder that listens for commands and questions and sometimes does what you say. You can ask it about the weather or news, and it will tell you. You can have it read audio books to you. I think I even read it can be a speaker for your phone, but I haven’t tried that yet. It can play music from Amazon Prime or from music you’ve bought through Amazon. It also plays Internet radio stations from IHeartRadio and others. It can remind you of things and add things to lists (shopping and To Do are the defaults).

All these things can be done by your phone, of course, and with Siri (and presumably Cortana and Google Now), you can even use your voice to command many of them. But Echo seems more suited for people that are not as technologically inclined. I’d say Echo’s audience is the over-30 or even over-40 crowd, because anyone younger than that has their phone surgically grafted to their hand and doesn’t need Echo. For those that don’t want to spend time hunting for apps on a tiny screen or choosing playlists, Echo is great!

Last night, my wife was enthralled having it play music from one of her favorite bands (I won’t name it so I don’t shame her 8-). Even though we have CDs and MP3s from that band and she could access them from her iPhone, she never has. Now Echo makes it easy, and she was thrilled. She beamed that I had brought music back into the house, even though we have a fancy surround sound system with many ways of playing music (that she never uses because it’s too complicated).

Echo isn’t perfect. If you ask it a questions that it doesn’t understand, it simply doesn’t respond. At least Siri has the guts to says she didn’t understand something. I asked “Alexa what audiobooks can I play?” Since I have a few Audible audiobooks, and Audible is an Amazon company, this seemed like a reasonable question for Echo to be able to answer, but it listened to the question (as seen by the ring of blue lights as you speak and it listens), then didn’t bother responding. That’s disappointing.

Overall, though, Echo seems really great, particularly for people that don’t want to get music and answers via their phones. I got an early bird deal that made Echo $100, but now it is $200 (or $150 for Prime members), which I think is a little much. You really need Amazon Prime, too, because of the access to the music library, so it is an expensive gadget. But it is a nifty one.

Two Sunday Visits to Treasure Island Park, Laguna Beach

Last Sunday, we decided to visit Treasure Island Park next to and behind the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach, because a storm in the Pacific was causing bigger than usual waves. It was a cloudy morning, but a pleasant temperature for a walk. The first pictures are of the arch, then a few pics of the waves, and finally, we saw a couple of whales near the beach. My iPhone has no zoom, so they just look like black specks, but I think the 2nd picture of the whales shows one of them spouting.

I also took a few videos. The first two show waves crashing on the beach, while the second is a guy using a drone to film some girls dancing on a rock. I was impressed with how fast and precise the drone was!

This morning, we woke to magnificent blue skies, not the marine layer predicted by the weatherman, so we went back to Treasure Island Park, but this time I took my good camera. The tide was much lower than last week, but no whales this time…