‘Smart’ Homes, Dumb Users?

I meant to post a link to The House That Spied on Me, a Gizmodo story that looked a little deeper into just how much data a ‘connected’ household is leaking, when I restarted this site a few weeks ago:

Our 1970s apartment building did not offer enough electrical outlets for this 2018 smart home, so we had power strips and outlet expanders everywhere, to the point where I was worried I was going to spark a fire and burn our smart home down. (This actually might have been cathartic.)

I had to download 14 different apps to my phone to control everything, which meant creating an account for each one of those apps. (Yes, my coffeemaker has a log-in and a very long terms of service agreement.) After setting them up, I thought I’d be able to control all the devices by issuing voice commands to Alexa via the Echo—the smart speaker that we’ve been using for the last year as a glorified timer and music player — but this did not go as well as I had hoped.

I can’t help but wonder, given the sheer quantity of End User Licensing Agreements they must have been required to click through to install all that software, whether in the end what’s going to kill the concept of smart homes isome gigantic legal tangle where it turns out that we’ve all clicked-through-but-claimed-to-have-read-and-understood conflicting agreements that we’ll let every app/device phone home and upload whatever date they deem necessary.

It’ll be reported that User A failed to live up to their solemn contractual obligation 1 to allow Amazon (or Apple, or Google, or Facebook, or whoever) to slurp up X megabytes of data per day, and therefore User A was in breach of their obligations to the company. They would henceforth be liable to pay a fine of US$X per day until they stopped running the other 15 apps/devices that wanted to upload their respective megabytes of data per day.

If we’re lucky, ordinary end users will conclude that it’s safest to avoid the whole mess by not letting their home network become a home to a dozen or more smart devices. If we’re unlucky, this will be seen by whichever company is seen as market leader as the perfect moment to announce that if we convert to their devices and software they’ll guarantee to have them cooperate with one another so that they can all leak data about us in a much smoother, more coordinated manner that we’ll barely notice.

(Alternatively, this whole thing will look like a fabulous income stream to the other 15 companies if they can get their lawsuit in first before the poor end user goes bankrupt trying to keep up, and we’ll really be in trouble…)

Driving tools

Who would have imagined that increased use of automated navigational information could have a down side, with more widespread use of automated mapping serving to push individual drivers into a nominally less busy route that turns out to be anything but if everyone else is getting similar advice about how to avoid a traffic snarl-up ahead?

To be fair, the research on this is at an early stage, but it seems plausible that unless the different mapping and navigation systems start to work together drivers are going to lose the advantage they’ve had in the early days when most drivers relied upon their local knowledge to find shortcuts and only a few journeys were made with the benefit of real-time mapping and navigational systems.

PDF forever?

The Portable Document Format, or PDF, is everywhere. But it’s still a format that causes headaches for the average person. […] It’s not often, of course, that the PDF gets this level of notice. The PDFs origin story is a bit more boring than that of the MP3, which was built around the contours of Suzanne Vega’s unaccompanied voice on “Tom’s Diner,” and the ZIP file, which came to life in a brutal legal battle that was egged on by the whims of BBS users. But the PDF still has a story, and that story is that of a format that promises to be even more valuable in the decades to come. […]

Sadly, if the proposition that the PDF is secretly the world’s most important file format is false, that’s probably only because of the number of draft copies of those many, many memos and reports sitting on our hard disks (or in some variety of cloud storage, or on someone’s USB drive) in some variant of Word format. Which means that we’ll all be fine as long as we all keep on using some variant of Microsoft Word.

Somehow the headline Microsoft want to hold your organisation’s documents hostage would be closer to the truth.

[Via kottke.org]

Speaker-to-Animals speaks

Paul Ford is at it again in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, explaining Bitcoin (and why the notions that lie behind it are simultaneously batty and beguiling to those who may be susceptible to Engineer’s Disease) to civilians. 1

[After a basic explanation of what Bitcoin does…]

That all of this adds up to money is ridiculous, and we should probably mock it more than we do. Consider Bitcoin a grand middle finger. It’s a prank, almost a parody of the global financial system, that turned into a bubble. “You plutocrats of Davos may think you control the global money supply,” the pranksters seem to say. “But humans will make an economy out of anything. Even this!” To be frank, central banking never really ground my gears; it’s just another one of those vast enterprises that we cower beneath, like network TV or religion. But I can see how it would piss people off. Bits gonna coin.

As usual with Ford’s work aimed at a general audience, he does a good job of relating why this stuff is so important to those who care about it in terms that the rest of us can understand without getting bogged down in technical niceties.

If the geek nation had any sense, it’d just grant him the title of Speaker-To-Animals right now and get it over with. They could do worse.

Parallel lives

Veteran tech journalist Charles Arthur has found himself forced to try surviving with just an iPad to get through his daily workload:

A couple of weeks ago, I opened my Macbook Pro as usual. The keyboard lit up, as usual. I waited – there’s that pause while the display gathers itself (it’s a 2012 model) and the processor pulls everything together and presents the login window.

Except this time, nothing. The display didn’t light. There was the quiet sound of the fans going, but nothing. Oh dear. [So…] I turned to my iPad Pro.

That was, as I say, a couple of weeks ago. Since then I’ve been doing everything I’ve done on this iPad – a 12in iPad Pro, with Smart Keyboard. That means email, writing articles for papers, editing chapters for my book, composing The Overspill’s daily Start Up post, and so on.

A few years ago, this would probably have been impossible. I wouldn’t have contemplated it. Now? Getting along fine. In a number of ways, the iPad is preferable – particularly weight and connectivity. In only a couple of ways is it worse (the most notable being “lappability”). […]

I feel his pain, in the light of my recent failure of my Mac. My hardware is a lot more limited – I have an iPad Mini 4 and a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard where he’s using a 12-inch iPad Pro with an Apple Smart Keyboard – but it’s been interesting to read a professional’s take on how to make this work on an iPad. I came across what sounds like the same problem in extracting YouTube embed URLs yesterday when I was posting about black ice skating, so it’s both comforting and daunting to realise that he’s having problems with that issue too.

I suppose the big difference between our respective situations is that Charles Arthur is a journalist and author and he needs to complete his work so he’ll still get paid, whereas my problem is entirely with using my iPad Mini to write this weblog and my income doesn’t hang on making this work. 2