when ideology ruins technology

I’ve been conducting an experiment with myself as the test subject since the first of this year. The reason for this personal experiment has been to determine if I can live without the Chrome browser and Google search.

I can’t go cold turkey on Google. I have multiple Gmail accounts to handle various tasks, having been a Gmail user since 2005 when I was invited to participate in the Gmail beta. In the past I attempted to use Google+, and I will on occasion go slumming through YouTube to look for some off-beat bit of music or old TV program. I experimented using G Suite and its individual tools in place of Microsoft Office, but I’ve since just installed and use Libre Office everywhere, not out of some misguided idealogical motivation but because it wouldn’t do all I wanted, the way I wanted.. Finally I’m a Go language user, Go having been developed by Google and for Google’s internal use before it was released as open source for the rest of the world. Google search was the first Google product I turned to, abandoning Yahoo! search completely the day I switched to Google Beta in late 1998. That’s over two decades of using Google products in some form or fashion. And I haven’t even talked about Google World and Google Maps…

Regardless, I fell under the sway of the screaming mimies that Chrome in all its forms was Evil, as was using Google Search. Ok. So on my iPhone and iPads and Mac I started using Apple’s Safari. It was pre-installed and Apple has this big deal about being privacy focused. I’ll give it a shot. For search I turned to DuckDuckGo, the current champion of the digital cognoscenti everywhere. So how did that work out for you Bill?

In the beginning it was a little rough. Search results, in particular, were a little thin, both in quality and quantity. Using Safari was OK and wasn’t all that different than using Chrome or Firefox. Until later.

Over time I found a problem with Safari on both macOS and iOS and iPadOS. It would crash and any open tabs were lost. On. All. Three. Platforms. I use my many open browser tabs to keep track of research that is ongoing at any given time. Over time, the oldest open tabs bubble to the back and are eventually closed by me. I make those decisions. But after three crashes (two on my iPad, one on macOS), I got really peeved. I’ve never had the problem with either Chrome or Firefox. They may crash, but they have tab recovery. No so Safari. The worst crash was on macOS where I had over a dozen leading tabs out of almost 100 open to areas I was actively using for my software and hardware development. That one truly hurt.

I’ve now gone back to a combination of Chrome and Firefox. I won’t even consider Microsoft Edge, so please don’t mention it. As for DuckDuckGo, when I switched browsers I switched back to Google and got what I consider much better search results. For technical questions, I consider Google’s results to be much superior.

Lesson learned? In the future, take everything that is pushing a technical ideological agenda with many grains of salt.

iphone and ipad technology failures in the age of coronvirus

There are countless and mounting problems with our so-called “perfect” technology having to deal with imperfect real life. Here are two example problems with my use of Apple technology during the coronavirus pandemic here in the US.

I own a number of Apple devices; several Macs , an iPhone and a pair of iPad Pros. The biggest issues I have are shared by the iPhones and the iPads having to do with their biometric locking features, TouchID and FaceID.

If I use TouchID on the iPads, over time after initial configuration both iPads will exhibit increasing failures to unlock when the front button is pressed. No matter how many times I erase and then reprogram touch ID, unlock remains erratic. I believe the problem is TouchID wants to decode “perfect” fingerprints, and mine are now far from perfect.

Based on recommendations due to coronavirus, I wash my hands extensively, both in length of time and number of times during the day, especially if I (seldom, as it turns out) have to leave home. To clean up I use Softsoap manufactured by Colgate-Palmolive. It does a great job, but one problem is it dries out the skin, especially on my fingertips. This leaves a lot of cracking and tiny flakes of skin. That detritus makes fingerprint matching with TouchID very difficult, requiring multiple touches/button presses to open the device. Either it eventually succeeds, or else I just punch in the password (which for me is at least eight characters because I’m that paranoid). In the end I decided that, because I don’t go out with either device, I would disable both password and TouchID. Now, when I want to open the iPads I just push the button and I’m into the device. With a cover on it, when the cover is opened I’m immediately into the device. Securing the device with TouchID while at home is too much of a burden.

Which leads us to the latest and greatest iDevice biometric lock, FaceID. In practice, on my iPhone 11, it works better than TouchID does on any Apple device that supports TouchID. When my phone can see my face at the position where I would comfortably look at the screen, it rarely fails. When it does fail it’s because I’ve either pushed my glasses up onto my forehead or I’ve taken them off completely. The second time I push up on the bottom edge of the screen, it succeeds. So only two attempts to unlock, which is far better than TouchID. The only time I have to enter my password is when it explicitly asks due to its built-in security timeout (after so many days you have to enter the password to get into the iPhone).

FaceID worked great until coronavirus and having to wear a mask. Now it fails repeatedly while I wear my mask. The only saving grace of failure is that FaceID fails fast. And now that I’m used to it failing with my mask on, I’m ready to enter the password. The time to fail first and then enter the password isn’t that much longer than two successive failures, where the second FaceID attempt normally succeeds. Failure due to a face mask underscores the limitations of the existing system.

I say existing, because rumor has it that a better FaceID that can work with a mask on is being engineered and will be installed with the next point release of iOS. In the meantime I can live with the way it behaves because, well, I really have no choice. I won’t remove the device lock because I always travel away from my home with my iPhone and I do want it locked down as much as possible.

I look at the failure of both of these security systems as yet another example of many. These failures illuminate the deep limitations of machine learning that backstops these features running on the devices. It also points to a broader level of poor quality and too many failures in our current technology in general. We spend too much on tech that doesn’t work nearly as well as advertised, and we’re putting it into critical parts of our system of systems, leading to overall fragility in our daily lives. I’ve begun to look at our world as a house of cards. Trouble is, you can’t go anywhere else in the world without running into the same issues. If we ever do have a machine apocalypse it’ll be because the machines themselves malfunctioned, not because they rose up in revolt.

Personal Postscript

Back in October 2019 I spent a premium sum on this particular iPhone 11 Max Pro just for the privilege of trying it out in real life. After seven months of continuous use I now consider that purchase a mistake, especially given how little I’ve come to use a number of its vaunted features. I won’t spend that amount of money again on an iPhone, or any smart phone for that matter, especially an Android. My next iPhone will be “down market”, a much cheaper iPhone 12. I’d considered the latest iPhone SE, but it has TouchID, which I don’t care for all that much anymore. I’m looking at a “low end” iPhone 12 with a smaller screen but with as much battery as possible inside the device. Now all I have to do is bide my time until October of this year.