In Fear Of Facial Recognition

One of the features that was added to the technology mix during the period between the purchase of my old phone and the purchase of my new iPhone is facial recognition software.  During the set-up process at the Verizon store, I held the iPhone as if I were looking at messages, moved my head from side to side and up and down until the phone had acquired about a 270-degree look at my head and indicated that it had seen enough, and the facial recognition feature was activated.

facialrecognition_1-672x372Now, whenever I pick up the phone, the software kicks in automatically and substitutes for the entry of passcodes.  It’s pretty amazing technology, really, and it’s a lot faster and less clumsy than the passcode-entry process.  I really like the convenience element.

But . . . as a result of this Apple has got my face memorized and digitized and stored somewhere.  And, the modern tech sector world of information-selling and data-trading being what it is, who knows who else now has the capability to instantaneously identify my less-than-noble features.  My cell phone service provider?  Every Apple subsidiary and affiliate and technology partner?  The FBI, the CIA, or the Department of Homeland Security, or some Russian or Chinese hackers?

Recently San Francisco passed a ban on the use of facial recognition software by police and other agencies, and other cities are considering similar legislation.  The proponents of such measures tout them as a victory for privacy and a safeguard against governmental overreach that could conceivably allow governmental agencies to track citizens as they go about their daily lives.  Opponents note that facial recognition software can help the authorities solve crimes — as the article notes, the technology was used to identify a mass shooting suspect last year — and that it can help to secure our borders and airports.

I’ve long since concluded that while privacy is nice, in the modern world you have to make countless choices that can affect your privacy in different ways.  Do you pay with a credit card that tracks your purchases, or cash?  Do you use a cell phone that keeps track of your location?  Do you participate in social media and share some of your life through Facebook, Twitter, and the countless other outlets?  Have you traveled outside of the U.S. recently and returned to the country using one of those passport and facial scanning re-entry terminals?  It’s hard to argue, too, that a face that you show to the world each day, that appears on your driver’s license, and that is captured regularly by the various surveillance cameras positioned throughout American society, is something that is extraordinarily private.

All things considered, I’m not too troubled by the use of facial recognition software.  It’s the protection of other highly personal information — such as health information and financial information — that is of much more concern to me.

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A Tale Of Two Jobs

The New York Times published an interesting story over the weekend that compared two jobs, and in the process provided some insight into how the economy is changing and what it means for workers trying to get ahead.

The two jobs were janitorial jobs:  one held by a woman working at Kodak in Rochester, New York in the 1980s, and the other by a woman currently working at the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California.  The two women earned about the same amount, adjusted for inflation, and performed the same kinds of work.

mop-and-bucketThe Kodak worker, however, was a full-time employee of the company.  She received more than four weeks of paid vacation annually as well as a bonus payment, and the company also reimbursed some of the tuition she paid going to college part time.  When the building she was charged with cleaning closed down, the company found her a different job.  The janitor at Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t work for Apple at all; she works for a service that Apple contracts with to keep its buildings clean.  She can’t afford to take a vacation because she can’t afford any lost pay, and there are no opportunities for bonuses or transfers to different work at Apple.

Although the Times article veers off into the unusual story of the Kodak worker — who ended up taking computer classes, getting transferred to a professional job in information technology, and ultimately becoming the chief technology officer at Kodak — the more interesting point is the macroeconomic lesson.  As the Times describes it, American companies have “flocked to a new management theory:  Focus on core competence and outsource the rest.”  The Times article notes that the outsourcing approach has made companies “more nimble and more productive, and delivered huge profits for shareholders,” but “has also fueled inequality and helps explain why many working-class Americans are struggling even in an ostensibly healthy economy.”

There’s no doubt that outsourcing has been a huge trend in the American economy.  But what the Times presents as a kind of optional management theory designed to reap windfall profits for shareholders while shortchanging working-class Americans seems to me to be more of the inevitable consequence of the cold hard reality of global competition.  The business world has changed, and companies that want to compete with low-cost providers overseas have to keep their intellectual capital while cutting costs wherever they can.  Outsourcing is one result of that reality; the disappearance of company-funded health care benefits and pensions, the rise of employee-funded retirement plans, and movements of company headquarters to the states and cities that offer the most favorable tax abatement schemes are some of the others.

The proof of the cold hard reality is in the outcome:  Apple is thriving, while Kodak — which once was one of the most successful, innovative companies in America — has gone through bankruptcy, laid off thousands of workers, and repurposed itself into a much smaller concern.  Kodak may have paid a price for its generosity.  And for workers, the lesson is clear:  do what you can to become one of those intellectual capital assets that companies want to keep around.

All About The “Applewood”

Recently Kish and I went to a brunch buffet.  One of the heated chafing dishes held “applewood smoked bacon.”  Last week when I went out to lunch, my cheeseburger was topped with “applewood smoked bacon.”

IMG_1086“Applewood,” “smoked,” and “bacon” have become inextricably linked.  No one has plain old Oscar Mayer anymore.  No, it has to be “applewood smoked bacon.”  It’s become as ubiquitous on restaurant menus as quinoa and kale.

The prevalence of applewood on our menus, adding just the right smoky flavor to our favorite fatty meat, raises questions.  First, why is it called “applewood” instead of just “apple”?  It’s the wood from the apple tree, sure, but nobody calls the wood from the pine tree “pinewood” or the wood from the oak tree “oakwood.”  “Applewood” sounds like a made-up word that was invented precisely because a focus group decided it sounded upscale and would appeal to restaurant goers.

Second, exactly how much “applewood” is there?  Americans consume a lot of bacon, all of which apparently must now be smoked with “applewood.”  I’m concerned that Johnny Appleseed’s hard work is being chopped down and our national strategic reserve of apple trees is being devastated by our ravenous demand for “applewood.”  This is another good reason to support the efforts of “Emily Appleseed.”

I’m as big a fan of bacon as anyone, but I’d like to save a few apple trees for the next generation.  I’d be perfectly fine if my next rasher were smoked with “cherrywood,” or “peachwood,” or even “orangewood.”  Heck, I’d even make the ultimate sacrifice and settle for sowbelly in its plain, unadorned state.

When Data Security Meets National Security

Syed Rizwan Farook, the male shooter in the December 2, 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attacks, carried an iPhone 5C that was owned by the county public health department, where he worked as an inspector.  After the attack, the county consented to the FBI’s search of Farook’s phone, but it runs on Apple’s iOS9 operating system, which is built with default device encryption — and, after two months of trying, the FBI hasn’t been able to break through the phone’s data security features.

The FBI believes the phone may hold data, such as in contact lists, photographs, or instant messages, that could materially assist in the investigation and potentially identify others, in the United States and overseas, who assisted Farook.  So, what to do?

apple-iphone5c-16gb-att-blue-2The FBI went to a federal magistrate judge, who ordered Apple to help the FBI unlock the iPhone by disabling the feature that wipes the data on the phone after 10 incorrect tries at entering a password.  That would allow the government to keep trying new combinations, without deleting the data.  Apple says only the phone’s user can disable that feature, but the court order requires Apple to write software that would bypass it.

Apple is resisting the court order, saying that such software would be a back door to the iPhone and is too dangerous to create.  “Once created,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”

National security and counterterrorism specialists say Apple should be a “good corporate citizen,” comply with the court order, and help in the investigation of one of the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history.  Privacy advocates agree with Apple that the government is overreaching, and argue that the court decision could set a precedent that would undermine the privacy, and security, of everyone’s handheld devices.  So Apple will appeal the court order, and no doubt other technology companies and interest groups will weigh in, in court and in the court of public opinion, about the propriety of the order.

We’ll have to see how the appeal plays out, but for now we can draw some conclusions.  First, Apple’s default encryption system must be pretty robust, if it can withstand two months of probes and hacking efforts by a highly motivated FBI.  Second, in the post-Edward Snowden world, there is a huge amount of mistrust for our own government and an obvious unwillingness to hand them any code, key, or software that could then be used in another mass governmental data-gathering effort.  And third, with cell phones now ubiquitous world-wide and serving as wallets, photo albums, Rolodexes, mailboxes, message centers, internet search devices, and home to countless apps, all in one handy device the size of a playing card, we’re going to see more and more of these collisions between data security and national security in the future.

The iPod At Technology’s End

Earlier this month I went to the Apple store at Easton Town Center and bought a second iPod — now called an iPod classic — because I wanted a spare I could use in my car and at the office on weekends.  Little did I know that I was buying one of the last iPods to be sold in an Apple store.

IMG_3056This week, after Apple announced its rollout of two new iPhones and the Apple Watch, the iPod classic was removed from the Apple on-line storePopular Mechanics reports that the iPod classic has been removed from Apple stores, too.

The iPod was introduced in October 2001, which means it’s ridiculously ancient by modern technology standards.  Technostuds view it as a kind of quaint antique, with its buttons rather than a touch screen and its single-purpose design and its internal spinning hard drive storage unit.  Sales of iPods of all kinds have dropped off, from a high of more than 54 million in 2009 to less than 12 million in 2012.  Obviously, consumers are focused more on multi-purpose functionality and would rather have an iPod app on their smartphone than carry around multiple devices.

All of that’s true, of course, but I love my iPod anyway.  It may be outdated, but the iPod has a certain timeless quality to it.  iPod classic is a good name for it, too, because it is a classic, like a gleaming 1930s sedan or a gorgeous art deco building.  With its crisp lines and sleek appearance, the iPod is simply a beautiful device — in my view, much more attractive than an iPhone or other substitutes.  And I like tinkering with it, creating playlists and shifting songs from here to there.  I like the raw storage capacity that allows me to store 40,000 songs — 40,000 songs! — and listen to any one of them when I’m taking my morning walk.  I don’t care that it only performs that one function when it performs it so well, and in such a cool package.  I’ll use it, proudly and happily, until the spinning hard drive finally gives up the ghost.

I’m glad I bought one of the last iPods to be sold at an Apple store.  I’ll almost hate to take it out of the box.

About Skeuomorphism

Did you ever wonder why the delete file on your computer looks like an old-fashioned wire trash can that you haven’t seen in years, or why your email icon looks like a letter?  The answer has to do with skeuomorphism.

Skeuomorphism — in addition to being a great Scrabble word — has to do with the concept of patterning computer images after “everyday” objects.  It was a focus of Steve Jobs, who thought it would make computers more accessible and user-friendly to people who don’t wear pocket protectors and button their short-sleeved shirts up to the neck.  Rather than typing a line of code, you could just drag something you wanted to delete to that trash can on the screen.  The use of skeuomorphic objects made computers easier, and almost intuitive, to use, even for skittish people who formerly worried that one false keystroke could cause a hard drive crash.

But those skeuomorphic objects have grown more and more . . . anachronistic in our fast-moving modern world, and an increasingly tech-savvy populace started to make fun of them.  Who uses actual file folders, anyway?  Will kids even know what those objects are supposed to represent?  Why should your e-books be displayed on a cheap-looking wooden bookshelf?  Who wants ’70s-era, bulky looking headphones on the “desktop” of their sleek, super-thin, ultra-light laptop?  And we all know that, in the modern world, something that becomes the object of ridicule isn’t likely to last long.

So apparently skeuomorphism is out, at Apple and elsewhere.  The tech designers are confident that people are comfortable enough with computers that they don’t need to clutter computer screens with representations of outdated objects.  I’m not quite sure what will replace it, but that wire wastebasket is going to be tossed in the trash bin.

Four Apple Family

After giving it some careful consideration, today I decided to buy an iPad for Kish and me today.  As Richard points out, it joins our iMac, iPod, and iPhone and makes us a four Apple family.

IMG_2234We bought it for good and thoughtful reasons — honest!  I travel a lot, and having a tablet with e-books makes more sense than lugging heavy paper books in my already crammed satchel.  Kish likes to read newspapers and magazines on her iPhone, and a tablet allows for bigger typesize and easier reading.  As Richard notes, a tablet also is a good organizing tool.  And, everyone we know raves about their iPad, its many amazing capabilities, and how it has changed their lives.  Why not join the party?

So, we bought this device for wholly appropriate reasons.  Why, then, have we spent the first few hours just oohing and aahing at the cool things this piece of technology can do?