what time is it in london? daringfireball gets its knickers in a knot over the answer

Just about everybody and their sibling(s) knows who John Gruber is, and his blog, “DaringFireball” ( https://daringfireball.net/ ). In the past, before today, I’d regularly stroll by to read everything he posted. 99% of the time I’d nod my head in agreement with his opinions and observations and then move on to something else. Except for today.

Today, Gruber wrote ‘What Time Is It in London?’ ( https://daringfireball.net/2020/05/what_time_is_it_in_london ) in which he took Apple to task because Siri, when asked the question, supposedly took too long and then answered with the time in London, Canada.

Nilay Patel asked this of Siri on his Apple Watch. After too long of a wait, he got the correct answer — for London Canada. I tried on my iPhone and got the same result. Stupid and slow is heck of a combination.

So one of Gruber’s Twitter buddies tweets his experience asking the question, and Gruber gives it a try and finds the same issue. That’s fine as it goes. Except it gets much worse. In the next paragraph Gruber writes:

You can argue that giving the time in London Ontario isn’t wrong per se, but that’s nonsense. The right answer is the common sense answer. If you had a human assistant and asked them “What’s the time in London?” and they honestly thought the best way to answer that question was to give you the time for the nearest London, which happened to be in Ontario or Kentucky, you’d fire that assistant. You wouldn’t fire them for getting that one answer wrong, you’d fire them because that one wrong answer is emblematic of a serious cognitive deficiency that permeates everything they try to do. You’d never have hired them in the first place, really, because there’s no way a person this lacking in common sense would get through a job interview. You don’t have to be particularly smart or knowledgeable to assume that “London” means “London England”, you just have to not be stupid. (emphasis mine)

The stench of arrogance and entitlement that runs through this paragraph is so strong as to be unbelievable. It’s a good thing I never worked for John Gruber, because if I had and I’d done something, anything, that he deemed to be stupid and “emblematic of a serious cognitive deficiency” I’d have turned around and left far faster than he could have fire me. I would have, in effect, fired him as a boss. Who really wants to work for such a toxic individual?

If I’d run across this type of “problem”, I would have stopped and asked why that kind of result to the question. For software systems, that means letting someone know this is an issue and helping to resolve it. If it’s a person I stop and understand why they delivered that kind of answer. Who knows why? Taking something like this completely out of context and then rage-blogging about it only shows how immature the author (in this case one John Gruber) is. When it especially comes to people, I don’t believe in disposable people. I’m retired now, but I really have tried to be a mentor to those who’ve worked for me, not some bastard boss from hell.

I read that article early this morning while in my doctor’s office (many of us old retirees have Medical Issues that need looking into from time to time). I couldn’t try this in the waiting room, since a doctor’s waiting room, even during COVID-19, should be quiet. But when I got home around noon I tried it, and I got the “correct” answer. Later in the day I tried it again, and then this evening, before I wrote this post, I tried again and grabbed screen shots off my Apple Watch and iPhone. My hardware, in case you’re interested, is a Series 3 Apple Watch and an iPhone 11 Pro Max, both running the latest software that dropped yesterday.

Thanks, John, for helping me to cut my screen time down further. I now have more time to devote to what’s really important, helping others.

Series 3 Apple Watch, watchOS 6.2.5
iPhone 11 Pro Max, iOS 13.5

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.