Clickbait is everywhere. It could be argued, of course, that anything posted by any of us who blog or tweet or comment is clickbait. We post it because we want it to be read, right? But when I say “clickbait” I mean headlines that are intentionally provocative and sensational, usually misleading, or at least failing to deliver what is promised. Neil Gaiman tweeted a particularly amusing clickbait headline that uses both him and George R.R. Martin to lure you to the web site: Is Neil Gaiman in town to help GRRM with edits on THE WINDS OF WINTER? And the opening paragraph of the story (which absolutely does not tell you anything about either Neil, George, nor the next Game of Thrones book) even admits that the story is nothing but clickbait. As Neil’s tweet observed, “At least it’s a clickbait headline that has the decency to squirm and grin and admit it…”
Other clickbait is less honest. Such as just about any headline about Apple. A lot of people have been griping about how underhanded Apple is being, or how they’re punishing users for going to cheaper alternatives with the “Error 53” stories. Some of the headlines cram entire editorials and a half dozen inaccuracies in the one headline, such as “Apple remotely bricks phones to punish customers for getting independent repairs.” Only one word in that headline is not an outright lie. Yes, only one.
But why are phones from Apple giving some users an Error 53 and refusing to work? What could possibly be the cause? Oh, if only there was some explanation… oh wait, there is:
“We protect fingerprint data using a Secure Enclave, which is uniquely paired to the Touch ID sensor,” said an Apple spokesperson in response to complaints from users. “When [an] iPhone is serviced by an authorized Apple service provider or Apple retail store for changes that affect the Touch ID sensor, the pairing is re-validated. This check ensures the device and the iOS features related to Touch ID remain secure. Without this unique pairing, a malicious Touch ID sensor could be substituted, thereby gaining access to the secure enclave. When iOS detects that the pairing fails, Touch ID, including Apple Pay, is disabled so the device remains secure.”
I tracked down this information, but I didn’t have to, because I already knew the answer as soon as I saw the first headline. I knew because I actually read about the new features of my phone when they added Touch ID two years ago. They described the security feature, and how the Touch ID sensor was paired with the security chip. And this information wasn’t buried in fine print somewhere. They actually talked about it in the keynote speech where they introduce the iPhone 5s, for goodness sake! Plus it is on the iPhone section of the Apple web site. They have videos about the Touch ID feature up that include all of that information.
It was obvious immediately when I read the first Error 53 story what was going on: if you change the home button, it isn’t the same one that was paired with the security chip, so it will stop working.
This is not Apple punishing third party vendors or being underhanded. Even iFixIt, a site infamous (and very disliked by Apple Corporate) for putting up detailed instructions on how to fix things yourself without going to Apple says it makes sense that the phone’s operating system should try to detect tampering and react in some way to protect the users’ data. They don’t think completely disabling the phone is the best outcome, but admit that something along this line should happen.
I do agree with the suggestions some have made that what the phone should do is simply disable Apple Pay and the TouchID features when this mismatch is detected, rather than disable the whole phone.
To get back to that sample headline, here are the inaccuracies: Apple isn’t remotely bricking any phones. One of the events that will trigger the phone to do a self-diagnostic is upgrading the iOS software, which is why some of the phones aren’t getting the error right away. It’s all happening internally, not a remote command being issued by Apple. The error isn’t just happening when unauthorized dealers do the work. iFixIt reports a couple of cases of this happening after authorized dealers made the repair, and in some of those cases it was subsequently fixed by the authorized repair place re-doing the repair. There is a very clear and understandable security reason why the system should check for any tampering related to Touch ID in general (since most users use that to protect all their personal data on their phone), and Apple Pay in particular (since the user’s money and banking information are involved).
What would deserve outrage was if the iPhone didn’t do anything in these circumstances. Not the other way around.
But writing accurate headlines about Apple doesn’t generate the clicks.
I’ve been trying to acquire a Smith-Corona Silent-Super portable typewriter in the bright pink with white keys for years. See, my mom owned that model of typewriter since her teen years, so I grew up with that typewriter in the house. And at the age of ten, when Mom decided that she was not going to be typing up any papers for me when I got to that stage in school, she sat me down with her old typing text book and started teaching me to type. I achieved a typing speed of a bit over 60-words a minute on that machine by the time I was in middle school, and being able to hit such speed on a mechanical typewriter is why my computer typing speed is about 105 words per minute.
And the Silent-Super was a dream. It was regarded by many as one of the best typewriters ever made. Mom’s was in great shape, with a touch so light and well-balanced, you felt almost as if you could have typed just by blowing on the keys. Read More…
So I clicked on it…
Just a bit over three years ago I was thinking about when I should update my laptop. I was using a three-year-old white MacBook. It was the low end product back then, but it had been a big improvement over my previous machine. At the time I acquired it, my laptop was a secondary machine, used when we traveled and such, but my desktop computer was still my workhorse.
But over the three years I’d had the MacBook, my writing habits had changed a lot. Most of my writing, and a lot of other computer work, was happening on the laptop. Part of it was simply the convenience of being able to write kicked back in the recliner.
So for a second I wondered if my aunt had gotten malware on her phone or something. I sent back a message asking if she needed both our email addresses or just mine, along with a comment about our weather and asking how hers was. My intent was to make sure that she had meant to send me that message before I did anything else. When she answered she said never mind, she had found the information.
When the iPhone was first officially announced (in 2007), I grumbled a lot. Some of my friends took issue with my grumbling, and I had to explain that I wasn’t angry at Apple, nor was I saying the iPhone was a bad idea. I was irritated at a lot of the technical press who were elaborating (incorrectly) on some parts of the news. And I was angry at the executives and processes at the company that owned my employer at the time, and another company that we were working with on a joint project.
I was angry because if they hadn’t thrown so many obstacles in our way, a phone we had been working on for a few years would have been released before the iPhone. Don’t take me wrong, the iPhone would have still leapfrogged over us, but if we’d released it when originally planned, we would have been just a competitor at a slight disadvantage. Because of the delays, the soonest we could possibly release it would make our independently developed product look like a quick attempt to copy some of the iPhone’s features.
But the story begins more than a decade earlier than that… Read More…
“Oh! You work with computers?” or “You know about computers, right?”
In many ways this has gotten worse as computers become more ubiquitous.
The person most likely to ask this question is someone for whom computers are little more than magic totems. They don’t understand them. To the extent they use them, it is like a ritual. The only way they know how to do anything is to try to repeat the exact steps they have done before. If the machine reacts in a different way than it did before, they don’t stop to try to figure out what they did wrong, they just try to find a way to perform the next step in the ritual.
So they will click Okay or Continue or “that little X in the corner that makes things go away” without reading the message, and keep clicking hoping to see the thing they were expecting to see. And thus install all sorts of malware and bloatware and other things that eventually make their computer unusable.
That’s if they have a computer and programs that they have been using.
Worse are the ones (such as the last person who spoke the dreaded sentence to me) who have bought a computer “because they found a good deal” or took a hand-me-down from a friend of a friend, and now they want just a “little” help to set it up.
The particular person who most recently did this is a musician who is a new neighbor. She stopped me as I was walking past her place and asked the dreaded question. She explained that she had become very intrigued at things that another musician she met was doing in GarageBand on his iPad. He had explained that he had “the same program” on his computer, where he could do a lot more.
So she had bought a computer at a yard sale, and wanted me to show her how to put Garage Band on it so she could do the things he did.
As you have probably guessed, if you know anything about computers yourself, the machine she’d picked up at the yard sale was a really, really old PC. Probably not even one capable of running Windows. This thing was a brand I haven’t seen in decades. It probably was manufactured in 1989 or 1990, I don’t know if it would actually turn on (I didn’t let her get me past the stage where she was pointing to it through the window where it was piled up on a table).
I told her that any computer that old was either dead, or nearly so. That it would be nearly impossible to find software that would run on it. That GarageBand runs on Macs and iPads, only. It doesn’t run on Windows, and it certainly won’t run on DOS.
“But he told me I didn’t need a fancy computer…”
I tried to explain that she could pick up inexpensive used iMacs at several places that would run GarageBand. “But it needs to be a computer no more than five or six years old.”
She didn’t understand why I wouldn’t go into her house to look at the computer she had “just to be sure.” It didn’t have to be GarageBand, she could probably find some other music software, she said.
I tried to explain again that electronics that old fail, and because they’re so old, no one makes the parts any more. Also, none of the inputs will match any modern microphones or other accessories she would need for recording her music. And most importantly, the only software it could run (if all its parts were still working) was very old stuff that would have been sold, back in the day, on floppy disks. “Twenty-five year old floppy disks don’t work. The magnetic particles flake off. The plastic disk part loses its flexibility and even cracks and breaks.”
“I don’t mind a few cracks…”
I thought I was going to scream.
And it’s not just people buying really old (ancient) computers.
My husband works at a place that refurbishes and resells oldish computers. He frequently tells stories of people that buy a computer, then bring it back (sometimes months after the warranty period) complaining about problems that are always user error. Or trying to install something that it isn’t intended to run.
My friend, Mark, told the story of a co-worker who kept complaining about her iPod, that it wouldn’t take music from the Apple store, it couldn’t sync with iTunes, and it wouldn’t work with any iPod accessories she picked up. When he got tired of hearing her complain and offered to take a look, the first thing he said was, “That’s not an iPod.”
It was some very cheap, no-name music player. And no matter how he tried to explain it, she didn’t understand how he could claim it wasn’t an iPod. And when she was willing to admit that maybe it wasn’t an actual Apple-manufactured iPod, she still didn’t understand why it wouldn’t work with iPod things.
I suggested he should have told her that it was like this: a horse and buggy can get you from place to place on public roads not unlike a car, but if you try to pour gasoline down the horse’s throat, you’re going to regret it.
I don’t know if he ever got to use that analogy.
Anytime a group of geeks get together, they wind up exchanging tech support horror stories. Whether one has ever worked in a tech support type job or not, if you are a geek, there have been times when you’ve wound up helping a non-geek out of a bad situation which they created for themselves through ignorance of, ultimately, basic laws of physics.
For instance, on the bus this last week, a couple with a baby in a stroller got on in front of me. It was clear they were both bus newbies. They headed back looking for some empty seats, with space for the stroller.
This was a double-length bus, which means it is a normal bus pulling, essentially, a second bus’s worth of seats. The two pieces are joined in the center by the section that bends and flexes. The walls are accordian-style rubber, the floor consists of a round section which turns as the front half of the bus goes around the corner, then starts to straighten again as the second half follows it around the corner.
They put the baby and the carriage right on the flex. A place which, as soon as the bus took a right turn, would cease to exist temporarily. Anything in that space would be crushed between a row of seats in the front half, and a single seat mounted on the rotating part of the floor.
So I quickly told them that that was the part of the bus that flexed, and it was not a good place to put a child. They moved back to a different spot.
A lot of people think of geeks as computer techs, but being a geek is about being fascinated with how things work. Whether it’s the mechanics of how a pair of connected vehicles behave going around a curve, or the physics of moving a heavy weight up on incline, or how electronic devices communicate with each other, it’s all a subset of “How does it work?”
In my early days in the tech industry, I worked at a small start up. My official title was a vague Coordinator position, what I actually did was supervise the production and shipping department, write and design all the technical documentation, test some of the hardware and software, help the less tech-savvy employees with computer problems, and then fill in anywhere else as needed. Which included one day a week taking tech support calls from customers while the tech support department had their weekly meeting and training session.
We produced voice messaging/auto attendent systems back at a time when most offices still had typewriters rather than desktop computers. Our systems, which ran on a dedicated desktop computer running DOS (this was years before Windows existed), would connect to a small-to-medium company’s internal phone system in various ways. And we had a lot of tech support horror stories from our customers.
There was the customer who kept turning off the “fan box” because he didn’t think the room was too hot, and couldn’t figure out why the system stopped working. He kept forgetting that the biege-colored metal box that the “TV thing” sat on was the actual computer. And I hasten to explain that this guy was president of a company with a few hundred employees. He wasn’t the employee in charge of the equipment, he just had this bad habit of wandering around in the evening after most of his employees had left for the day, turning things off to save electricity.
But one of my favorites is about fundamental physics, though it didn’t seem like it at first.
A lot of those phone systems back then (and a lot today, because a lot of those medium-office size switches are simple enough electronic systems that they work just fine decades later) use a couple of serial (RS-232) ports for programming and data exchange. You’d plug dozens or more standard phone lines in to connect all the phones, but for other things you’d use the data port. They were originally designed for someone to hook up a dumb terminal or teletype to program and monitor the phone system, because this was back when what laptops did exist often cost more than a relatively new car.
Our system could connect to those ports as well as a couple of phone ports to do all the call transferring and message taking and so forth. But often it wasn’t convenient or even possible to set up the computer running our software right next to the switch. So we recommended a particular 100-foot long RS-232 cable in case the systems had to be really far apart and you needed to run the cable around something.
The one we recommended had really good, clean signal because the individual wires were thicker than in cheap cables (wider diameter wire means lower resistance to electrical signal, for one thing), with really thick, durable insulation, so the cable wouldn’t be ruined simply by being stepped on a few times.
We strongly suggested that the systems be set up as close together as they could and to use a shorter cable, just because it was easier.
We had an experienced dealer who had sold one of our systems in a larger office with one of these systems that needed the serial connector, and they had ordered one of the 100-foot cables, because they thought they would need it. They set everything up, but when they were testing the system, things weren’t working right, and it was doing it in an inconsistent way.
The cable used had 25-pin connectors, whereas the phone system used 9-pin, but adaptors for that were usually reliable. The computer had one of each type, for a while we thought they had enabled the wrong port on the computer. Ports were tested, software was re-installed, the whole configuration process was gone through step-by-step. They finally decided that the cable was the problem, because they could make everything work with an 8-foot cable they happened to have, but the shorter cable was stretched tight across the room, right where people needed to walk, so they couldn’t use that one.
Because we had sold them the long cable, we wound up sending them a new one.
A different dealer technician went back to the site with the new cable a few days later. He walked into the room, and immediately knew what the problem was.
Whereas the 8-foot cable had been too short, the 100-foot cable was too long. So when they had installed the system, the other technician had carefully coiled up the extra 50-feet of cable, secured the coil with twist ties, and set the coiled middle part of the cable on a very large, humming box that was midway between the two system.
The very large box had “Danger! High Voltage!” labels on all sides. It was a big transformer for power for the entire building. And the technician had set a multiple-wound cable that was supposed to be carrying a low-voltage data signal, right on top of it.
For those that don’t know: a large electrical device such as a transformer will generate a cycling magnetic field. If you move a metal coil through a magnetic field, the field will induce electrical currents into the coil. If you place a stationary coil into a cycling magnetic field, the same thing happens.
Setting the coiled excess cable on the transformer sent an extra current into the cable, messing up the signal.
It would be like two people were trying to have a quiet, complex conversation, while four rock bands and a jet engine are pumping out all the noise the can, right on top of them.
I understand after the tech explained it, they then had to explain that, no, you couldn’t just open the transformer and remove the magnets, because there weren’t any magnets. The magnetic field is generated by the electricity. “But I thought you said the magnets made electricity?” Which apparently turned into something resembling the old Who’s On First Routine.