Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Technology vs Evolution, a.k.a. The Battle Against The Machines

I love walking aimlessly around a new neighborhood right after moving, taking in the sights and discovering the ins and outs of the place. I particularly relish those moments when I can distinctly feel two disjoint areas of my mental map connecting. Initially, a new area is just a collection of landmarks - there's the palace, and I think the station is somewhere nearby, and there's a Starbucks around here somewhere, and that big road is maybe 15-20 minutes away from that other big road. But without actually experiencing how the sections connect to each other, the map in your head is necessarily incomplete. Maybe you can start in the center and work your way out radially to each of the landmarks, but what about getting from point A to point C? And then one day, as you're leaving point A and you turn the corner, you spot point C 500m up ahead, and the map will thereafter make perfect sense to you.

Just as this feeling came over me again the other day (that's where the stream ends??), I couldn't avoid thinking about how technology obviates the need to ever build this mental map in the first place. Don't get me wrong - I think that Google Maps combined with GPS is the single best feature of modern smartphones. A feature that was literally a concept in a magical universe a decade ago is now so commonplace that we don't bat an eye at it. But it's impossible to ignore the simple reality: GPS makes us dumb. It fights what our minds were evolutionarily evolved to do - complex spatial reasoning. If you constantly rely on GPS, your mind never has the chance to build the mental map.

I've seen this problem especially acutely in cities where people drive a lot, but insist on always using GPS. I have multiple friends in SF that I could place two blocks from the Embarcadero, ask them how to get to 280, and they'd immediately reach for the GPS (for those who are curious, go towards the Bay, then turn right). They literally do not know their way around a neighborhood they've lived in for months if not years.

Why bring evolution into it? Well, spatial reasoning seems to be an evolutionarily adaptive trait. If you can't make it back to the cave, you might get attacked by the sabre-toothed tiger, or die of starvation, or eventually make your way back to find your companion and offspring dead or missing. If you can't build a lay of the land in your mind, you might forage forever in over-foraged areas, or forget how to get back to the river and die of thirst. Humans are incredibly powerful spatial thinkers, and it's extremely unlikely that it's a coincidental trait.

Fast forward six hundred or so generations after the first civilizations started really getting together to form larger towns, cities, and nation-states, and we find a blinking dot on a phone and a computer-generated incorporeal voice in a car threatening this basic yet intricate example of human mental prowess.

Of course, it's not just GPS that makes us dumber. The whole concept of the "exo-brain" is a double-edged sword. Sure, we have unlimited storage at our fingertips, and can call on our phones to instantaneously do calculations that a few decades ago would have required a room full of NASA engineers with slide rules. Yet I can barely remember my own phone number, let alone the hundreds of others in my contact list, which would be somewhat troubling in the event of an emergency. But this is simply a matter of outsourcing memory to a device - it's not threatening to our humanity, merely to our ability to remember and calculate.

Little by little, apps and technology are trying to replace the very things that make us human. Lately, there has been a rash of services in the "efficiency" market. Want artisanal bread and organic heirloom tomatoes delivered to your doorstep? There's an app for that. Standing outside a restaurant and can't get up the nerve to go inside and check it out? Plenty of local recommendation services to your rescue. And my favorite in this genre, without a doubt, is canned serendipity. The optimists claim that technology is meant to bring us together even more in the real world. Yet the reality of subways full of people staring down at small rectangles speaks otherwise.

The common thread for all of these services is that they aim to replace human interaction. It wasn't that long ago that we would ask people (real human beings!) for directions when we were lost. It wasn't that long ago that we would stroll around markets and talk to shopkeepers to see what's fresh, what looks good, what's in season. We didn't need to post pictures of food to convince our friends we were leading interesting lives - they already knew, because we spoke to each other. Often. We weren't engaged in the Sisyphean task of searching for emotional fulfillment in bits and bytes and follows and likes - we were living, out among other humans in the real world.

Make no mistake - Skynet is not the immediate threat. You're not going to wake up one day and be attacked by your Roomba. No, the immediate threat is the outsourcing of our humanity, the things that make us human, to machines. The things that bring us together to laugh, to cry, to fight, to love, to smile. Slowly but surely, we are giving our humanity away to technology. We're letting it think for us, remember for us, tell us what to do, take us from place to place, and most dangerously, we're outsourcing our emotions. There will be no Judgment Day. No, there is no need for a glorious battle when we are already freely surrendering to the machines.

Luckily, it's early in the war, and there has been some resistance. People are starting to realize the danger of over-reliance on technology. They're remembering the joy of going somewhere or doing something without knowing how it's going to turn out. They're putting their devices down and getting back together as friends, couples, and families, and doing what humans were designed to do - sharing emotions and feelings with one another, face-to-face. I'm a long-term optimist - I think humans will win this battle against technology, because the more that the interactions that we literally need to survive are wrested away, the more innate defense mechanisms will kick in to protect us. Yet we can consciously decide to win this war before it goes any further. We can make a decision to prioritize humans over technology. We can seek balance rather than overstimulation. We can remember the best moments in our lives, and realize that none of these were spent with our eyes occluded by a tiny slab of aluminum and glass.

We can remember what it's like to be human, and the rest will take care of itself.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Apple Follow-up

Interrupting my viewing of last week's Daily Show to provide a quick update on the Thunderbolt situation.

First of all, it took an exceedingly long time to figure out how to do a clean install of Lion so I could give my system to the Apple contract store here in Korea. It turns out that most of Apple's instructions are incomplete, misleading, or simply incorrect. If you ever want to do a clean install, you need to:

1) Do a complete backup with Time Machine to an external drive (this is actually a great feature of OS X, and is super simple to set up).
2) Disable FileVault and wait for your hard disk to be decrypted. External recovery disks don't work with FileVault.
3) Create an external recovery drive on a USB external drive. Make sure the drive has GUID partition scheme - otherwise, it will appear to succeed, but actually won't.
4) Boot up to the external recovery drive by holding down Option while restarting.
5) Using Disk Utility, wipe the hard disk in the computer.
6) Then reinstall Mac OS X.

When you get the system back, hold down Cmd-R while rebooting, and choose to Restore from a Time  Machine backup. This last step is quite seamless.

Anyway, after three days of waiting, I get a call from the Apple contractor that they've fixed my system. I asked them to explain exactly what they did, and after ten minutes of prodding, they tell me that with an Apple technician's help, they upgraded the firmware for my Thunderbolt. I asked them to show me the version, and after another ten minutes of back and forth, they explained that they upgraded the firmware for the GPU, but OS X doesn't display that version number - it's hidden - and also, you can only get the firmware update from an Apple technician. So I explained that I was going to restore my system via Time Machine, and I was worried that the firmware would be downgraded. They assured me that no, the firmware won't be affected by Time Machine, and they tested my monitor for three days without any problems.

Color me not surprised that five minutes after restoring my system and plugging into the Thunderbolt display, the exact same problem exists.

The sad part of this is that not just does Apple not trust customers with any ability or power to solve problems, but they don't even trust these contractors - the contractors need to get Apple on the line to install these updates.

In other news, since almost all the media coverage of the Apple-Samsung IP dispute focuses on poor Apple and how their world-changing slide-to-unlock was copied, here's the other side of the story:

Update: Went back to the fake Apple store. First, they wanted me to leave my Macbook Pro there for another two days. I told them no way. Then, after explaining that the problem still existed, they said, "Yeah, because you restored with Time Machine." Not wanting to go to jail for murdering an idiot, I calmly explained that I wanted them to reinstall whatever firmware update they installed last week. So this time they tell me that they actually installed the firmware update on the display itself, not the laptop. I asked to see the service sheet to find out exactly what they did, and it basically sounds like they watched movies for three days in the background on my monitor and never saw it flash. Eventually, after many consultations with other "engineers" (I'm so offended they call themselves engineers), they email me a 24" Cinema Display update and tell me to run it later with my Macbook connected to the display. I explain that the instructions clearly state to only run it on a 2008 24" Cinema Display, and they assure me that no, it'll work just fine. Of course, the update is smart enough to not even run.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Apple and the Rich Idiot Babies

Apple devices are nice - they're pretty, they're shiny, they seem to be well designed. But then something breaks, and you quickly learn that appearances can be deceiving. It's only when something goes wrong that you truly learn how a company feels about their customers.

Take Zappos, for instance. Their customer service is famously good. I've experienced it firsthand, and it left me feeling like Zappos cared about me as a customer and treated me like a respected adult.

Apple, on the other hand, takes what I like to call the "rich idiot baby" approach to their customers. The operating system is designed from the ground up with kid gloves - e.g., why would you ever need to know where on your hard drive a file is actually located? Leave that to Dad to worry about. But for the most part it's still a usable OS, and since I do some iOS development, I decided that "the real thing" was the way to go.

Inevitably, sooner or later, something goes wrong. In my case, my laptop was probably defective from the moment I carried it out of the store, but I never knew until recently when I got a new monitor. The problem seems to be in the Thunderbolt chip or port itself. When connected to a Thunderbolt display, the display flickers black every minute or so for a split second. You can imagine this being quite annoying, especially given the price of the display. I made sure my software was all up to date, then brought the monitor back in for testing, and sure enough, I'm told the monitor is fine. Great.

Thus begins the yak shaving adventure of trying to fix something on a Mac. Since Apple thinks you are a rich idiot baby, the goal, of course, is to make it as hard as possible to actually diagnose and fix your problem. A bunch of Googling leads me to discover that there is an "Apple Hardware Test" included in the OS. I'm told that it's not very intensive, but will rule out obvious things. I figure it can't hurt, so I follow the instructions to run it (just hold "D" during boot). And ... nothing. Supposedly, it will boot from the Internet "if it's not included in your copy of Lion" (why wouldn't it be??), but instead, my system refuses to enter AHT. Perhaps it's cause I'm out of the United States, or perhaps their support site is out of date. Regardless, no hardware test for me.

No worries, I think. It sounded like a lame test suite anyway. Some more Googling leads me to something called the Apple Service Diagnostic suite. This sounds like what I want. It's an intensive series of hardware tests for diagnosing problems with your Mac. Someone on a forum mentions it's not free, but whatever, I'm willing to pay the $19.99 or whatever it costs on the App Store in order to finally have some real diagnostic tools for my Mac. I find a link to the actual suite on the Apple site, excited that I'm about to get some answers, when the price hits me in the face like a rabid madman swinging wildly with an iPad:


What. The. Fuck. Apple wants to be so absolutely sure that you will need to bring in your Mac for service that they make their diagnostic suite nearly completely inaccessible for consumers. That is how they view their customers - they're not just babies who need everything to be super easy and safe so they don't mess anything up, but they're also idiots who can't think for themselves, and have an unlimited credit card in case they want to solve a problem the Apple way: by buying a new system. I try to get an actual support rep to help me run the lame-ass AHT suite that wouldn't actually start up before, but that would cost $49 for a "single incident" tech support call. Forget it.

The saddest part of all this is that despite still being under hardware warranty, I've probably voided it by upgrading to 16GB of third-party RAM, since having Apple upgrade it at purchase would have cost about six times as much (literally). Sigh. Next time, I think I might go Samsung, simply because I find their "you can't copyright a rectangle" IP defense ballsy and hilarious.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Marathon Cheat

Man, am I the only one fascinated by this article about the "Marathon Man" dentist, Kip Litton, who cheats in marathons, but no one can figure out exactly how?

I was extremely disappointed to get to the end of this article without learning how he did it. How does he pull off such elaborate cheating? For those who don't want to take the time to read, this guy is trying to record sub-three hour times in marathons in all fifty states. He often starts races way at the back, taking up to five minutes to make it to the start line, then mysteriously disappears from most race photographs throughout the race, showing up again only at the end, yet somehow he passes over all the chip mats in the race, often at odd times. How does he do it?

I've never taken part in a traditional road race with bibs/chips, so I'm going to make some assumptions about how they work. Those who have participated, please correct me where my assumptions are wrong. I'm guessing the race photographs are based on the bib numbers, either automatically OCR'ed or at the worst, manually by volunteers. Kip Litton often has his bib covered during races, so it makes sense that he rarely shows up during the race photographs.

A strange recurring feature is that he seems to change clothes and sneakers during races. My immediate reaction was that there must be multiple people. Assuming there's a guy who looks like Kip Litton (twin?), that would explain the differing outfits, as well as why he's usually shown looking down. So I could imagine during the initial race start confusion, the real Kip Litton passing off the chip to the "fast" Kip Litton.

But that doesn't come close to explaining the chip times. His chip goes over all the chip mats. Even cutting the course directly, it seems to take an awful lot of planning to know where the chip mats are, and to make it from one to the other without just being obviously spotted. And the times are not consistent. He registered a huge negative split in a few of the marathons. Even if a "real" marathon runner had run the race with his chip, the real runner would likely have more consistent times - unless they swapped halfway (with Kip running the first half, and the faster runner running the second half).

So my next thought was, what if he's figured out how to clone a race chip? And then how to give someone else's chip time to your own chip? I know absolutely nothing about the chip system used in races, but I'm hoping it's not that easily hacked. If it is, though, let's imagine at the start of the race, Kip Litton clones the chips of a number of runners around him whose approximate times he knows (people line up for races by expected mile pace, after all). Then during the race, as their chips go over the mats, his linked chip is also recorded as going over the mat, perhaps with an added randomness factor so it's not exactly the same as the other runner's time. But if you can figure out how to trick the system into stealing another chip's passage over a chip mat, you have probably compromised the whole system, so there's no need to go through the additional trouble.

Occam's Razor says that this random dentist has not hacked the chip system. There must be a low-tech solution. My guess is multiple people that look approximately like Kip Litton, passing the chip (attached to the bib) from one to the other like a relay, making sure to keep the bib covered during the race. But surely this would be obvious to other racers? And for shorter races (like the 17-something 5k he "ran", where he was photographed walking during the race), simply cut the course directly. For less policed marathons, simply cut the course, show up at the finish, and if the result is questioned, remove it from your list of completed marathons.

Any other ideas?