How did Apple manage to screw up the iOS calculator app?

This is a strange one.

Not too long ago, Quartz reported on an unfortunate gaffe by Apple in the calculator app in the latest version of iOS. If you typed in “1+2+3=” fast enough, you would get a wrong answer (i.e. not 6). In some cases, you would get a very wrong answer.

Apple did finally get around to fixing this bug about a week after the article. What’s disturbing is just how the botched calculator came to be to begin with. Per the article:

According to a group of eagle-eyed iPhone users on Reddit who spotted the issue, it seems to be because of a new animation in the calculator app, where a button briefly fades to white when you press it. The result is that if you press an operator button (i.e., the plus sign) before the short animation finishes, the app ignores it. So, 1 + 2 + 3 accidentally gets read as 1 + 23.

Translation: Apple cares more about the flashy and purely cosmetic animation than the calculator actually performing its intended function. This is wholly unacceptable for any company involved in devices intended to be used for functional computing. A calculator app is not a laser light show with numbers on it. It is a tool, much like the dedicated devices it is modeled after, which is relied upon to give accurate results when used. Screw up something like the calculator, and you (quite justly) lose the trust of a good number of your users, something which is not very easy to regain.

The good news is that Apple is fixing it. The bad news is that it apparently took Apple two minor iOS revisions to recognize the issue and get a fix out there. Quite disturbing to me. Yes, there are third-party calculator apps, but one should not have to resort to a third-party app for something like this.

I can only imagine what’s next: a phone app that dials the wrong number if you enter it too quickly?

Fixing broken tractors, Ukranian style

Recently, the Motherboard blog on reported on the extreme measures some US farmers are having to take to fix their John Deere tractors, namely downloading cracked software hosted in countries like the Ukraine and Poland.

From the article:

Tractor hacking is growing increasingly popular because John Deere and other manufacturers have made it impossible to perform “unauthorized” repair on farm equipment, which farmers see as an attack on their sovereignty and quite possibly an existential threat to their livelihood if their tractor breaks at an inopportune time.

“When crunch time comes and we break down, chances are we don’t have time to wait for a dealership employee to show up and fix it,” Danny Kluthe, a hog farmer in Nebraska, told his state legislature earlier this month. “Most all the new equipment [requires] a download [to fix].”

The nightmare scenario, and a fear I heard expressed over and over again in talking with farmers, is that John Deere could remotely shut down a tractor and there wouldn’t be anything a farmer could do about it.

The article goes on to describe a license agreement John Deere forced farmers to sign in 2016 October, which not only forbids the farmers from doing their own repairs but includes a covenant not to sue John Deere for “crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment …arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software” running on the embedded systems in the tractors or other equipment. Basically, John Deere is saying “if our tractor breaks, it’s your problem, not ours, for the length of time it’s out of action.”

If this sounds like pure lunacy to you, you’re not alone. I would go as far as to call this one-sided agreement unconscionable. No judge worth his or her salt would possibly uphold such a blatantly lopsided agreement, especially given some of the rather exorbitant rates charged by John Deere: the article mentions $230 plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out to a site and plug a connector into a USB port to “authorize” a repair done by an independent repair shop (which, of course, they could decline in theory). Given farms are by definition not going to be close to major cities or even larger towns where John Deere technicians are likely to live, a bill for such a service call could potentially cross the thousand-dollar mark.

So the farmers and independent repair shops say to hell with the license agreement and do the repairs in violation of it using cracked software from the Ukraine, Poland, and elsewhere. I can’t really blame them. And it’s possible that despite the license agreement, the repairs themselves may not be quite as unlawful as it first appears, though the acquisition of software intended for use only by “blessed” (i.e. authorized) John Deere technicians could still be against the letter of the law. In 2015 the Librarian of Congress approved an exemption to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) for land vehicles, which would include tractors and farm equipment. Curiously, around the time the exemption went into effect was when John Deere started requiring farmers to sign the license agreements.

One farmer modified his tractor to run on methane produced from pig manure, which I certainly applaud from an environmentalist standpoint. Who is John Deere to say that gasoline is a better fuel than the methane from pig shit (that would ordinarily be considered a waste product outright)? I would think most people (by which I mean non-stockholders in companies involved in the petroleum products trade) would agree that pig poop methane is a far better choice.

But the environmentalist side of me isn’t done. Toward the end of the story, there’s this quote:

“What happens in 20 years when there’s a new tractor out and John Deere doesn’t want to fix these anymore?” the farmer using Ukrainian software told me. “Are we supposed to throw the tractor in the garbage, or what?”

There’s one way to stop this, and it’s a “right to repair” law such as those already under consideration in five states: Nebraska, Minnesota, Kansas, Massachusetts, and New York, with a similar bill targeted more precisely at farm equipment in the works in Wyoming. The bills are modeled after a similar law already passed in Massachusetts targeting motor vehicles (but unfortunately, not including farm equipment it would appear).

Not surprisingly, John Deere is one of the opponents of this legislation, along with companies like Apple, which I have already written about at length on this blog. Gee, I wonder why? Maybe they fear the loss of an income stream built on robbing farmers (or hapless iPhone owners)?

This situation the farmers find themselves in is a large part of the reason why I fight for computing freedom and limit the amount of non-free software I use (and specifically why I do not run Windows on my PC and will never buy any Apple hardware, including Beats headphones).

Censorship and the Hollywood Sign

I read with interest some months ago a Gizmodo article entitled “Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps”. My interest came first as a freedom and digital rights advocate, and second as a frequent contributor to OpenStreetMap. The latter of these is particularly important as you will see shortly. (Yes, the article is a bit old, but the larger issues are just as important today, and will become no less important as time goes on.)

The Gizmodo article was written by Alissa Walker, who is perhaps best known for her blog and specifically this post from 2011 June entitled “The best way to see the Hollywood sign”. In the Gizmodo article, something very disturbing is noted: with the advent of GPS technology, area residents are resorting to putting pressure on the likes of Google, Apple, and Microsoft (Bing Maps) to divert those asking for directions to the Hollywood Sign to either Griffith Observatory or Hollywood & Highland Center.

Such is the problem with relying on corporations for one’s mapping data: corporations are controlled, in the end, by stockholders, who decide it’s in the corporation’s best interest to do such things to avoid a lawsuit. The article goes on to share Alissa’s own experience getting legal threats from a homeowner in the area of Lake Hollywood Park. The threat as quoted from the article:

Please immediately cease and desist from using 3204 Canyon Lake Drive and 6161 Mulholland [Hwy] or any other residence as the address for the Hollywood Sign and change the address to one of the two official viewing spots sanctioned by the Hollywood Sign Trust as shown in their map. The locations are: Griffith Park Observatory and the Hollywood and Highland Center…

Please be advised that up to this point your actions may have simply been due to an oversight of the local situation. However, should the address not be changed going forward, you may named in a lawsuit and be held liable for damages in an accident or due to your knowing and/or negligent continuing direction of visitors to the viewing spot at 3204 Canyon Lake Drive and 6161 Mulholland Hwy.

As mentioned later in the article, Alissa got some photos emailed to her as well from the same homeowner showing illegal parking attributed to her directions. The way I see it, the tourists driving in the area are the ones responsible for parking lawfully according to the laws of the state of California and the city laws of the appropriate city (whether Hollywood or otherwise). To pin vicarious liability on Alissa for the actions of others is absurd. Information, such as that Alissa gives out, carries with it the responsibility to use it wisely and obey the applicable laws. It is the same as if someone posted the location of a good fishing spot; the use of the information regarding the location of the spot would not be an excuse to violate daily catch limits or other boating regulations (unless the person posting the location were to do something stupid like include “warden never patrols this area” or “don’t worry about the limit”).

Alissa wrote another article for Gizmodo entitled “There Is No Such Thing As An Unbiased Map” a short time later. This one focuses more directly on OpenStreetMap, but also contains a couple of other gems. Such as this one:

“If I recall correctly, back in the days of MSN maps, searching for Infinite Loop in Cupertino [where Apple is headquartered] showed a blank spot on the MSN map, as if there wasn’t anything there,” said [former Code for America fellow Lyzi] Diamond. “There is no such thing as an accurate map. It’s all up to cartographers.”

Indeed, it’s a pretty low blow to blank out the campus of a competitor company on one’s own mapping service (though I would think trusting Microsoft to get you to an interview at Apple or Google is not exactly the brightest move either). But this is where OpenStreetMap (hereinafter OSM) really comes into play, as like Wikipedia, it maintains an audit trail of what was added, modified, or deleted, and by whom (at least a screen name, though I would assume the IP addresses are recorded as well somewhere). And yes, you can get accurate directions to the Hollywood sign using OSM data. The community behind OSM considers shenanigans like redirecting visitors to Griffith Park Observatory or Hollywood & Highland Center as vandalism, and rightfully so.

Would our angry homeowner really sue the OpenStreetMap Foundation, or any other non-profits that financially sustain OSM? It’s certainly possible, but I would like to think most people consider suing a non-profit to be off-limits. The mere existence of OSM, however, serves as a rather powerful check on the near-monopolies enjoyed by the likes of Google, Microsoft (Bing Maps), AOL (Mapquest), Apple, and others who, until OSM became a viable alternative, enjoyed an effective oligarchy on map data. Not only do I personally edit OSM, but I wish I could use OSM every time I needed to map something. As it is I still wind up using some other service (usually Google Maps) maybe 20% of the time as of this post.

Houston’s nominal equivalent of the Hollywood sign, the We Love Houston sign on the south side of I-10 near downtown, was among my additions to OpenStreetMap. And so far, there have not been similar issues regarding the We Love Houston sign; then again, it’s still relatively new, and while I admire and respect the work of David Adickes, I wouldn’t realistically expect it to be the same type of tourist draw in its infancy.

Dupe detection run amok and other blunders: A cautionary tale of Apple Music’s bugs

I had been aware of the hype surrounding Apple Music over the past few months. Most of it had been things like how much the artists were going to get paid, and all that. And now it’s here, and according to Jim Dalrymple of The Loop in his article entitled Apple Music is a nightmare and I’m done with it… well, I think the title pretty much says it all.

To make a long story short, Jim quickly found out that Apple Music has duplicate detection. Technically this can be a good thing, but the way Apple implemented it? It turns out it’s a First Class Foul-Up. Jim added albums, noticed not all the songs were added, then noticed the songs had an “Add” button beside them after clicking “Show Complete Album.” This, alone, is a UX/UI fail. But it gets worse:

From what I can tell in my tests, Apple Music is deciding itself, based on your library, that it will not add duplicate songs. For instance, I purchased a lot of Black Sabbath albums over the years, but not all of the compilations. I went into Apple Music and added a compilation album, but it didn’t all get added to my library. When I looked at all of the songs that didn’t get added, they were ones that I already had in my library.

In another example, I added Bob Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde” and his “Greatest Hits” albums. The “Greatest Hits” was short three songs—the same three songs that are on “Blonde On Blonde,” so Apple Music chose not to add them to the “Greatest Hits” album. It’s not unreasonable to want to listen to an album in the context the artist wrote it, and then other times, just listen to their greatest hits. It’s my choice to make.

That last sentence is key here. It’s a recurring theme in the Apple-verse: Make it nearly impossible (extremely difficult and potentially hazardous to the warranty) to run apps not in the App Store, to the point most people won’t dare try. Don’t approve apps with porn in them. Don’t approve apps that replace part of the phone’s functionality and/or allow one to sidestep carrier restrictions (Skype and other VOIP apps, replacements for the phone dialer, other web browsers besides Apple’s own Safari). And the list goes on.

Apple has never been about allowing users choice. Now that Apple Music is here, I would not surprised to see many of the other music apps not approved for new versions. If they don’t already, Apple will likely come up with their own watered-down Spotify/Pandora clone, and kick those apps to the curb.

I’m going to shift gears a bit. Right now, my music collection lives on an external hard drive (or two). The vast majority of it is in FLAC format. (FLAC, for those who don’t know what it is, is sort of like gzip or PKZIP, except tuned to compress audio better than anything else. Apple has, or at least had, something similar called ALAC.) I have a lot of duplicate songs. I have intentionally left them intact for exactly this reason; not all of them are the exact same version and I want to be able to listen to both the original album and compilation albums where the same songs appear. So yes, I have things like five nearly-identical copies of The Power of Love by Huey Lewis and the News, two copies each of two different mixes of Never Ending Story by Creamy, two copies of I Will Remember You by Amy Grant, two copies of both Love is a Battlefield and We Belong by Pat Benatar, etc. I could go on and on, but the point is that duplicates will happen in any music collection of an appreciable size.

And I would be pissed off if my music software decided to go behind my back and randomly remove the “duplicate” songs from my collection. For one, some are not really duplicates; at one time I had Bon Jovi’s album This Left Feels Right in my collection, which had acoustic versions of many of their previous hits. I moved this album back out of my on-disk collection because I got tired of it. Imagine having the original versions of those tracks deleted by a “helpful” music library software, and one can easily see how big of a disaster this could be.

And yes, these tracks were deleted from Jim’s collection, as he found himself some 4,700 songs short when he decided to dump Apple Music for something that didn’t suck. Worse, Jim says “[M]any of the songs were added from CDs years ago that I no longer have access to.”

Moral of the story: Backup early and backup often. Don’t trust the only copy of your music library to any new software. And be especially leery of Apple products.

User groups and the chameleon of technology

Earlier this week, Dwight Silverman wrote a post in Techblog about the demise of HAL-PC which at one time was the largest computer user group in the US. The relevance of HAL-PC, and computer user groups in general, has become so low in recent years that many of you may be surprised that HAL-PC hung on in some form well in to the 2010s.

From the post:

Bill Jameson, a former board member who spoke by phone from HAL-PC’s South Post Oak offices, confirmed the decision. He reiterated the “changing society” theme in the email, saying “this society we live in now has a different set of interests and goals. Our type of organization is not included in that.”

“Most of our members are older,” Jameson said. “The cultural norms we group up with are pretty much gone, and as a consequence the organization has not sufficiently adapted to this new culture.”

What led to this? Let’s take a look back to the 1970s and early to mid-1980s when computers were a new thing, and an era before the vast majority of people had access to the Internet. Most computer-to-computer communication was done via modems over analog telephone lines. Through most of these two decades, 9600 bits per second (bps) modem speeds were a long-chased ideal, with 300, 1200, and 2400 bps being much more common. In the place of the Internet, there were bulletin board systems (BBSes) and amateur email networks like FidoNet.

But more importantly, there was no hitting the power switch, waiting a minute, and coming back to a full color graphical user interface, and clicking on a few things to launch whatever software one wanted to run.  There was the DOS prompt, or on earlier computers a BASIC interpreter (some of the really exotic models didn’t even had that, but only had a Forth interpreter or even just an assembler). There were no mice during this era for the most part, much less something to move a pointer to and click on. If one wanted the computer to do something, one typed it in. Typing was an unmistakable prerequisite to computer literacy, with knowing MS-DOS commands or their equivalent on one’s platform following closely behind. Most people learned a little programming, even if it was MS-DOS batch files or writing short BASIC programs, out of necessity.

Most importantly, though, the line between programmer (today more often called “developer”) and user was much blurrier than it is today (I’ll cover this in more depth later). And this is where user groups came in, where the more advanced users would teach those newer to computing how to get the most out of their gadgets. User groups are the reason technology is not feared as it once was by those who lived through the era in which they existed and were largely relevant.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s. Microsoft came out with Windows 95 and with it there was no separate MS-DOS product any more, it was all graphical and you had to dig for the MS-DOS prompt if you still wanted it. At least through Windows 98 there was still a fair amount of MS-DOS compatibility (I think Windows 98 still had the ability to boot into a “command prompt” as they call it to run older MS-DOS software). But before too long, the command prompt would become harder and harder to find, and at least Microsoft would rather have you believe it is simply less useful in modern times (I personally believe Microsoft themselves made it that way on purpose). Instead of being something magical, computers take their place next to the TVs and stereo systems at stores like Best Buy and Target. For the most part, computers are just another appliance now. It makes as much sense to have a computer user group as it does a refrigerator user group or toaster oven user group.

On one hand, it still amazes me that once back in 2008 or so, I found a still-usable computer sitting out by the dumpster, and the main reason for this was that there was some kind of issue with the Windows XP install. Rather than try to fix it, this person dumped it and bought a new one. That computer eventually became a firewall/router which served us well for a good 3 years plus, though those who know me will (correctly) guess the first thing I did was wipe the Windows XP install and replace it with OpenBSD (4.9 or 5.0, I think, but I could be wrong). On the other, it’s a rather sad reflection on the public’s attitude to computers, and just how much ease of use has taken a lot of the magic out of learning how to use a computer.

I use a graphical interface now, though I have not kept Windows installed on any computer I’ve considered “mine” for at least 12 years now. While I am not quite at “a mouse is a device used to point at the xterm you want to type in” it’s rare that I don’t have at least one command line open somewhere. In at least one situation on a computer that wasn’t “mine” where getting rid of the installed copy of Windows wasn’t an option, I kept an Ubuntu install on a thumb drive and booted that instead of Windows when I needed to use that computer. The installation failed several times in weird and not-so-wonderful ways, but I got it back up and running almost every time. (The one time I didn’t? The thumb drive itself (not the Linux kernel finding filesystem errors) started throwing write protection errors. I got the surviving important data off that drive and at least temporarily used a different (very old and underpowered) computer exclusively for a while.)

Personally, I’ve never lost sight of the magic behind computing. I’ll admit it, I get a thrill out of installing a new operating system on either brand-new or new-to-me hardware, which I’ve done for every system up until the last one I received new (the one I’m writing this post on). This one was ordered custom-built and with the operating system (Ubuntu GNU/Linux 11.04) already on it for three reasons: first, because for once, it was a realistic option to buy a computer with Ubuntu pre-installed; second, I needed to make immediate use of the computer as soon as it arrived; and third, it was a different thrill to experience the closest equivalent to how most people today get a store-bought PC. The great job Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) has done even trying to mount some kind of challenge to what is a damn-near-monopoly by Microsoft deserves a post all its own (which I may make sometime in July).

But I think it’s a sad commentary on the state of computing that most computer users in this decade will never even think that building their own computer is a realistic option, much less doing their own operating system install, much less realizing there are many other choices for operating system besides those which come from Microsoft (or Apple). There is a certain degree of intimidation to overcome when it comes to staring down an empty computer case and the components that will go into it. I was there once myself; I once built a new 80486DX/33 and barely had a freaking clue what the heck I was doing. It helped that I had a friend at the time to guide me through the tricky parts (over the phone). Today’s hardware is, if anything, much more friendly towards do-it-yourself builds: RAM chips, CPU chips, power supply connectors, and SATA (hard drive) connectors are all keyed to only go in one way; the only thing decreasing is the number of people actually willing to pick up the screwdriver.

(Quick sidenote here: Apple never did embrace the idea that users could build their own computers. For better or worse, Apple has positioned themselves as sort of a “luxury brand” of electronics. The only thing worse than Microsoft’s near monopoly is that it’s impossible to buy components and build one’s own iMac, or even buy an Apple computer without Mac OS X. Apple has actually made it a EULA violation to run Mac OS X on unlicensed hardware, even though today’s “PC compatible” computers can run it. This is one reason I point to when I say that I believe Apple has been more harmful to the state of computing than Microsoft has been.)

Another sad commentary is the rather rigid wall that’s been built between “user” and “developer” (what we used to call “programmer”). Even “power user” doesn’t have quite the same aura it once did, and it’s used as a derisive term more often than one might otherwise think (and way more often than it should be, in my opinion). I find myself slamming into this wall on many occasions, as there are things I’d like to be able to do as a user, which I research and find out one needs to actually be a developer to do them. (Which sometimes means it’s impossible or going to be much harder to do than it need be; other times, I simply want to say “no, this shouldn’t be a developer feature, I’m just a user who wants to make full use of the technology.”) For example: Windows (which has lineage back to MS-DOS) no longer comes with a BASIC interpreter. Another example: Neither Windows nor Mac OS X come with compilers suitable for writing one’s own software. (Microsoft makes no-cost versions available for download, but they aren’t easy to find, and in all likelihood are a thinly disguised excuse to get one bumping into the limits and then shelling out money for the “real” compilers.) It is in fact expected that most users will simply spend amounts of money (which can run into hundreds, thousands, or even ten thousands of dollars) on the appropriate pre-written, shrink-wrapped, proprietary software. This is great for the stockholders of Microsoft, Apple, and other members of the proprietary software cartel like Adobe. It’s lousy if one’s “just a user.”