John Gruber on the relish with which tech journalism pours scorn on stuff:

There’s a nihilistic streak in tech journalism that I just don’t see in other fields. Sports, movies, cars, wristwatches, cameras, food — writers who cover these fields tend to celebrate, to relish, the best their fields have to offer. Technology, on the other hand, seems to attract enthusiasts with no actual enthusiasm.

John’s right – tech journalism rarely celebrate just how amazing technology is. We’re all too fast to pour scorn, to critique, to condemn. I’m hoping that in 2014, we’ll see less of this and more celebration. And that’s a good thought with which to start the eleventh year of this blog.

On the demise of “Angry Mac Bastards”

I’m not surprised that Angry Mac Bastards ended the way it did. Sooner or later, the show was bound to pick on the wrong target and ratchet things up to way beyond the point of no return.

I should say up front that I have a certain amount of skin in the game over this. Not only did I guest on one episode, I’ve known Peter and John for many years. While I know Darby and Kelly less, I enjoyed their online presence a fair amount too.

But there are also friends who got on the other side of AMB’s vitriol and really didn’t enjoy the experience.

The point of show, as I understood it, was always pretty simple: take apart the utter stupidity written about Apple and its products in as vitriolic and funny fashion as possible. And oh boy, is there a lot of stupidity out there to take apart. The flow of effluent about Apple has never been bigger or stronger, and a lot of people pick up a lot of page views from deliberate, provocative stupidity about it. Those guys know what they’re doing.

But this is why picking on Aaron Vegh was a step too far. Vegh is, basically, a “civilian”: he’s just some ordinary guy. Taking apart his website and his appearance was pointless and unfair.

I think some of the focus of AMB went when Peter left. That’s no disrespect to Kelly, who combined some erudite observations with a lot of wit and personality, but Peter was kind of the fulcrum for me, managing to both rage at stupidity while keeping things on track.
I’ll miss AMB, but I think it had probably run its course. And I’m sorry it ended this way.

Surface Pro 2 Days Four Five and Six

Day four, and I’m typing this on the iPad. There’s a reason for this, which I’ll come to later… Oh hang it, I’ll say it: I’m on a short trip and needed a portable device that I didn’t need to take a charger for. The Surface doesn’t cut it for this kind of journey.

This is one of the hidden things about the Surface Pro 2. Yes, for a laptop (I’ll come back to that too) the battery life is good, as acceptable as my pre-Haswell MacBook Air. But compared to the iPad… Well that three or four hours additional use that I get from the iPad matters.

And “not taking a charger” doesn’t just mean “because of the battery life”. It’s also down to the fact that almost everyone I know has an iPhone with a Lightening connector, which means chargers capable of topping up my iPad are all around. Can I give the Surface Pro 2 a hit of charge when I’m in a car? Nope – at least not if I want to be able to start the car later.

So, no Surface Pro on this trip. But I have been using it today, and I do have a few new comments…

Pie in the Sky(drive)

Another day, another issue connected to Skydrive. You would think when it was offline, it would let you save into a folder and sync it later. No: it makes you save it in a local folder and move it later. That’s the opposite of the way that Google Drive or Dropbox work, and it’s not really good enough.

This is not how cloud storage should work. Writing this using iA Writer Pro, I don’t have that issue. Sync is invisible, which is how it should be.

Epiphany: it’s a laptop (dumbass)

What’s become clear is you have to look at Surface Pro as a laptop. It happens to be able to be used in some tablet-like ways – for example, for a reading task in your lap. But it’s really not very good in those roles. If you think you could “replace” a real tablet with it, you’re just not using a tablet much.

Beware of the Bitcoin

Alex Payne on Bitcoin, Magical Thinking, and Political Ideology:

“In Bitcoin, the Valley sees another PayPal and the associated fat exit, but ideally without the annoying costs of policing fraud and handling chargebacks this time around. Bankers in New York and London see opportunities for cryptocurrency market-making. International investors see the potential for arbitrage and are taking advantage of cheap electricity, bringing the environmental destruction of real-world mining to the brave new world of digital money.

In other words: Bitcoin represents more of the same short-sighted hypercapitalism that got us into this mess, minus the accountability. No wonder that many of the same culprits are diving eagerly into the mining pool.”

The poverty-perpetuating, self-aggrandising techno-libertarians strike again…

The 12 Days of Surface Pro 2 – Day two

Day two of the Surface Pro 2 summed up nicely both the pros and cons of the device. First, the bad bit: I became a victim of the failed firmware update, and found myself with a tablet which wouldn’t charge, at all. It merely stayed at 10% charge, which meant that it was confined to being plugged into the wall.

However, Microsoft clearly worked overtime on this one: by midday, another firmware package had downloaded and installed which (judging by the date) reverted the firmware to the version issued at the end of October. And after an hour or so turned off and charging, it was back to full working order again.

Despite this, I’m growing to like using the Surface Pro 2 a little more. As a laptop, it’s a pretty good machine – powerful enough to do lots of stuff, and I really like the feel of the Type Cover. And I’m growing to like the modern Metro interface more and more. Once you get used to it, it feels really good. Of course, that only makes the times you are dumped into the Windows desktop even more jarring…

But – and it’s a big but – there’s still quite a few rough edges to deal with. For example, I’ve yet to manage to get Chrome working properly as the default browser. Every time I try and change it to being the default (running in Metro mode, rather than Desktop) it misbehaves, refusing to display full-screen and instead occupying a small portion of the screen, with controls and menus off the top of the screen and no way to move them back. I think this is probably something to do with the Hi-DPI display, but I have no idea how to fix it and can’t find a way to sort it out online.

And one thing that’s really clear is that 64gb simply isn’t enough. I have a few apps installed – the biggest one is Office – and I’m down to less than 20gb free. That’s with no music, no photos, no video. If I was going to buy one of these, I don’t think I could go with less than the 256gb version, and that would push the price up considerably.

Privacy will die, but not because of corporations or governments: Because of you

Edward Snowden used his alternative Christmas message to highlight the death of privacy, and he’s right that privacy as we’ve all known it will die. But he’s wrong to focus on what governments are doing. Governments aren’t the ones that are going to kill privacy.

Neither are corporations the ones to blame. Google, Amazon and the like will know more about us than any company has ever known about its customers, but they aren’t the ones who will kill privacy.

No: the ones responsible for the death of privacy will be you and me.

What happens when the technology of surveillance - surreptitious cameras, tiny drones,  spyware – becomes available to every individual on the planet? What happens when every parent can follow their children’s activities 24/7, online and offline?

History tells us that technology starts off expensive and big, the domain of governments and corporations, and ends up small and cheap, available to every individual. Surveillance tech is going to follow the same pattern. And that, not corporations and governments, will be what kills privacy.

The 12 days of Surface Pro 2 – Day one

If you follow me on Twitter, you’re probably aware that I’ve been using a Surface Pro 2 off and on for a few weeks. So far, my impressions of it haven’t exactly been positive. As a tablet, I’ve found it to be pretty woeful. As a laptop, it offers less than my MacBook Air.

However, prompted by Kevin Tofel, who’s been using his Surface Pro 2 as a kind of souped-up Chromebook, and Mary Branscombe, who’s been vociferous in her defence of the product, I’ve decided to give the Surface Pro 2 a proper go. In keeping with the time of year, I’m going to use the Surface Pro 2 as my only computer for 12 days, replacing my MacBook Air, iPad Air and Nexus 7.

Importantly – for this is a test of mobility as much as anything else – I’ll be carrying the Surface Pro 2 everywhere that I would normally carry one of my usual devices. This means it’s really got to replace the iPad as a tablet (carried everywhere), the MacBook Air as a laptop, and the Nexus 7 as a sofa-surfer and occasional book reader.

Day One

It’s not a good start. One of the uses I put tablets to often is reading books, using Amazon’s Kindle software on pretty-much every platform. Kindle is generally pretty amazing. It keeps my reading position in sync, and (on tablets) any book that I start reading is downloaded to read when offline.

Happily, there’s a Windows 8 “Metro” version of the Kindle software, which looks and acts the same as on other tablet platforms. Except that when I went to continue reading a book that I’d started earlier, Kindle told me it couldn’t: “An error occurred while loading the next page. Please try again later.” Because I wasn’t connected to the net, it wouldn’t load the rest of the book – which is different to the way Kindle behaves on other tablet platforms, where if you download the book it’s available offline.

The second somewhat jarring thing is the lack of a reminder of the battery life that’s left. In Windows 8.1, to get to the battery indicator, you need to swipe in from the right hand side. That’s fine, but at the back of my brain I’m feeling like this is a laptop (and a Windows one to boot) – I should be keeping an eye on the battery.

This is an objective thing: the Surface Pro 2 actually has pretty good battery life, according to every test I’ve seen. But it feels like a laptop, rather than a tablet, and that tells my computer-addled brain to keep an eye on battery.

One thing that I am instantly missing is my iPad Air’s built-in 4G. Yes, I could tether the Surface Pro to my phone, but I’ve always found that tethering is more of a pain than it should be.

Some positives: I’m using the Type Cover 2 rather than the lighter (but horrible) Touch Cover, and it’s a really nice keyboard to type on, at least when you’re using it at a table. In the lap, the combined depth of Type Cover, Surface, and kickstand (adjusted to “lap-friendly” angle) isn’t as comfortable as a regular laptop, and if you’re lying on a sofa it’s even less comfortable still. I certainly prefer either the MacBook Air or iPad Air (with or without Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover) when sofa-surfing.

The screen is a bit of a mixed bag. I love the resolution – it’s as good as the iPad Air – but the shape and size leave something to be desired. When you’re using it in landscape orientation, it’s great for video but actually pretty poor for reading documents. If you use the onscreen keyboard, you’re also left with only a sliver of content above it, which makes it tricky to write much. Portrait orientation is just generally a bust. It’s really clear Microsoft doesn’t expect anyone to use this much. It’s too long and thin for most web pages, and the width make books into the same experience as reading a newspaper with too-narrow columns. And the Windows button, which is fixed on to what’s normally the bottom edge, sits at precisely the point where your thumb is likely to rest if you hold the device in portrait mode.

Skydrive is a mixed bag too. There appears to be a limited range of syncing options: either you have only the files you’ve accessed recently available offline, or you have every file available. You can’t select individual folders and make everything in them available, as you can with Dropbox or Google Drive (UPDATED: Yes, you can, although it’s not obvious. And the default appears to be “keep everything in the cloud” rather than “download and sync”). Of course, I could just install Dropbox or Google Drive.

The selection of apps in the Windows App Store is also a mixed bag. There’s some good, high-quality products from small developers. But there’s also some categories where there just isn’t anything of decent quality. For example, there are plenty of Markdown editors, but all of the ones I’ve looked at are (at best) nothing out of the ordinary and at worst just crap.

A fictionalised conversation between me and a Surface Pro 2 fan

Me: “Surface Pro 2 makes a pretty poor laptop, because of its crazy kick stand and lack of a bundled keyboard. Just buy an ultrabook or MacBook Air.”

SurfaceGuy: “But! What laptop can you just take off the keyboard and use as a tablet?”

Me: “Yeah, but the Surface Pro 2 makes a really poor tablet. It’s too heavy, really hard to use in portrait mode, and you keep being dumped back into the crappy old Windows desktop to do things. Just buy an iPad or good Android tablet, or even a Surface if you like that sort of thing.”

SurfaceGuy: “But! What other tablet can you clip a keyboard on to and have a fully-fledged laptop?”

Me: “But it’s a pretty poor laptop…”

And so it goes, round and round. Point out Surface Pro 2 is a poor laptop, and you get pointed towards the fact it’s also a tablet. Point out it’s a pretty poor tablet, and you get pointed back towards the fact that it’s also a laptop.

No, the “UK national firewall” doesn’t block Boing Boing, EFF and slashdot

Government-mandated web filtering is a really bad idea, for reasons which should be obvious to anyone who’s used the Internet for long. I’m against them: I think it should be up to adults to decide what they see, and for parents to decide what their children see.

However, in opposing them, it’s really important that we don’t go off the deep end and cry wolf about what ISPs are doing. That’s why I find Cory’s post at Boing Boing about how “UK’s new national firewall: O2′s “parental control” list blocks Slashdot, EFF, and Boing Boing” concerning. 

Cory’s post takes it’s lead from another post by Peter Hansteen, which points at o2′s URL checker, which lets you see whether an individual site is blocked by o2′s web filters. The third setting – “Parental Control” – appears to block pretty-much the whole internet.

However, I think this is misleading, and conflating two very different sets of filters. The site checker Peter linked to is, I believe, related to o2′s mobile service, not its broadband service (which is now part of Sky). In common with most mobile companies, o2 has a default blacklist, which can you opt out of easily. It also has a set of much stricter “Parental control” setting which allows parents to tightly lock-down what a child with a mobile can see. It’s this second “Parental control” setting that’s basically blocks everything on the internet, apart from a handful of “child-friendly” sites.

I don’t think this is anything to do with the government mandated porn block. It’s just the same mobile filtering that’s always been there, and that’s common across pretty-much every mobile company. I can’t imagine why anyone would change any child’s mobile to basically block the whole of the internet, but it’s opt-in, and it should be up to the parents.

Sky, which now owns o2′s former broadband service (not the mobile network), does have a system of DNS-based filtering called “Broadband Shield” which is compliant with the government-”requested” filtering system. Although I haven’t run through it, it seems to work like this: when you sign up to Sky as a new customer, you’re presented with filtering options. The default setting is on, but you can change it at this point. (More details in Sky’s response to ORG’s questions about it). The “PG” and “18″ level filtering is, of course, as much riddled with inconsistency as any other filtering system, but it’s not the “OMG BLOCK EVERYTHING” that o2′s mobile parental controls are.

UPDATE: And now this piece on the New Statesman is making the same error, conflating pre-existing filters on a mobile network with Cameron’s “porn blocking” plans. This is crying wolf. The two things are not the same. For the love of god, people, let’s have a grown up debate that actually deals with the facts, rather than sensationalising things.


Did the NSA pay RSA $10m to weaken encryption?

According to a story by Reuters, the NSA paid encryption company RSA $10m to deliberately weaken one of its products by using an encryption algorithm which, presumably, the NSA had already cracked.

Sounds plausible. After all, we know the NSA at least attempted to influence standard-setting bodies to adopt weaker levels of encryption.

But there’s something about this story which doesn’t add up. Once you begin to think about it, this kind of deal doesn’t make sense for either the NSA, or for RSA.

For RSA, doing something like this would be a brain-dead move. Yes, as the Reuters report says, $10m looks big in the context of the $27m made by the division of RSA which allegedly received it. But for the company as a whole, it amounts to less than 2% of its annual revenue of $525m in 2007. And a decision to accept that money would almost certainly have to have been board-level: so why would they have accepted it? Would they undermine their own product – and in a way which they must have known would almost certainly leak at some point? It just looks unlikely.

For the NSA, why bother when there are more effective and secretive ways of achieving the same goal? Why not simply plant an employee in RSA with access to the code? Why not quietly pay a very senior individual (or individuals) to buy their compliance? Why not hack into the company and plant your own back door? After all, this is an organisation capable of planting malware in top secret nuclear facilities of another country – breaking into a commercial organisation, by comparison, is trivial. And using methods like bribery, “human intelligence” or hacking gives you a level of plausible deniability that no direct deal with a company could.

Paying the company money – money which would have to be accounted for somehow “through the books” – is the least secure, most probable to leak and thus least-effective option. It seems pretty unlikely to me that an organisation like the NSA would choose to do that, rather than use one of the more covert (and effective) options at its disposal.

UPDATE: RSA has “categorically denied” it was paid to weaken its security. It’s worth reading this post in its entirety, because it includes some details about its decisions.

Ian Betteridge on Macs, mobiles, and technology