On Twitter: @JamesFirth and @s_r_o_c (post feed)

Got a tip? tip@sroc.eu

Friday, 26 July 2013

The usability recession

Back in the 80's, life for technophiles was pretty frustrating.  Just loading a game on a home computer such as a ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 would take around 5 minutes.  Games were stored on cassette tapes, and loading would occasionally crash part way through, forcing the frustrated gamer to rewind the cassette and start again.

With the affordability of disks (floppy and hard) things got a lot better in the 90's.  But, as fast as old frustrations disappeared, new ones appeared.

Faster computers, more memory and larger storage meant more complex systems; and more complex a system, more frequently it would crash. 

Word processors would freeze, printers would seize and operating systems core-dump sometimes several times a day.  Still today I save documents through habit learnt in the 90's after every paragraph written - despite my PC or word processor not crashing once in around 2 years.

Things did get better.  Windows 98 fixed many of the bugs in Windows 95, and by the time Windows XP appeared I had a computer that did pretty much everything I wanted it do to.

Over a decade later and technology has got a hell of a lot smarter.  Portable devices, smart TVs, streaming movies. 

We should be basking in mankind's achievements in science, technology and engineering...

Yet today, nothing bloody works any more! 

Well, lots of things do work, but suddenly everything just feels difficult again.

The explosion of devices and operating systems has lead to an implosion of compatibility and a fragmentation of refinement. 

When one manufacturer fixes an Android bug on one model of phone or tablet it's pot luck as to whether they'll apply the same fix to the same bug on other models. 

As different manufacturers deal with a different subset of issues the customer is left running a gauntlet of crashy, bloaty software.  Of particular note is the agonisingly unusable "PC sync/upgrade" software shipped with mobile devices.

I still can't find a decent word processor for my Asus TF300 tablet - like one that allows me to type words that remain in the same order typed, with spelling mistakes underlined and where the save button works 100% of the time it is used; the browser crashes occasionally when typing email - basic stuff.

And service providers are doing their best to stop me wanting to use their service.  Whilst Facebook works fine on my powerful desktop machine, it can crash the browser on some of my computers - as, incidentally, can loading the front page of the Independent.

Whilst mobile Facebook works reasonably well for posting a picture, half the features are missing.

Twitter have done their best to make me never want to tweet again.  They practically killed my interface of choice - TweetDeck. 

TweetDeck used to be a relatively simple app that helped manage multiple streams.  Twitter, after all, is about streams of short bursts of information - too much information to be consumed in the traditional, linear, way.  Instead one dips in and out.  Set a search for my home town to see what people are saying, check for the latest super-injunction scandals, etc.

The original software did 2 things well.  It allowed the user to flick through incoming tweets, and it allowed the user to tweet - with a spell check and everything.  Plus - particularly applicable to mobile - it had a nifty alert feature so you could see from your phone's status bar if someone was tweeting at you.

Now all that is gone.  The surviving desktop app is 3rd rate, can't even get a spell check to work, and the mobile versions have been officially killed - not just discontinued but disconnected at source.

And don't even get me started on mobile phones.  Even the model names are unfathomable: does the HTC One support 4G? Only the HTC One 4G, apparently. What about the HTC One X? Or the One XL?  The HTC One 4G LTE has a full-HD screen (1920x1080 pixels - on a phone!) whilst the HTC One XL 4G has only 720p HD screen.

What is the Google Nexus? Don't even go there if you're looking for clarity..  The "Google Nexus S" could be any one of four phones, of which only the SPH-D720 has 4G capability.

And 4G capability is dependent on the country and the operator.  Whilst the iPhone 5 works on the UK's EE 4G network, it won't work on some 4G networks being launched by rival operators because of the frequency bands being used.

On the subject of phones, bad things happen to my address book each time I change handset. 

Twice I got duplicates of my contacts; now I have four entries for everybody.  And, when I once tried to sync my address book to the NSA's Google's servers, they helpfully added around 350 people I had in various circles to my phone address book.  So now I have Mum, Dad, Wife, plus 350 people I've never met.

Practically everything, from watching Netflix on your smart TV (depending on the manufacturer) to transferring and editing video from your camera, to tweeting or updating your contact list has gotten difficult of late.

Perhaps, with the explosion of data, of devices, of services, and of uses, the focus on usability has been lost. 

Whilst things got better - a lot better - in terms of usefulness and usability each decade for the last 30 years, perhaps we've entered a usability recession.


Thursday, 4 July 2013

Extracting Snowden

A single tweeter is claiming Edward Snowden has left Russia on board a diplomatic jet.
A single claim isn't really worthy of a mention, even on this blog, however there is one detail above worth looking at.  The mention of a Gulf Stream jet.

A Latin American country looks the most likely chance of asylum for Snowden, even more so since yesterday's grounding over Europe of a diplomatic flight carrying president of Bolivia Evo Morales managed to rile a whole continent against the US.

But as we saw yesterday, travelling from Moscow to South America with a contentious cargo isn't that easy since the flight would ordinarily pass through the airspace of quite a few staunch US allies.

Not only that, but the range of many aircraft would necessitate a refuelling stop en route.

Re-routing to avoid such airspace is pretty much an impossible task, and going the long way round, east over Russia then over the Pacific, is even harder.
Click to enlarge. Source/copyright: maps.google.com
The best, if not the only, feasible route would be to head north from Moscow, refuel at Murmansk then skirt the airspace of northern European countries before heading south over the Atlantic.

Such a trip would require an aircraft with a rather long range of around 6,000 nautical miles.  A bit like the Gulf Stream V.


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Q. Where are we without clear ground rules? A. We are where we are now - and that frightens me.

But where are we heading in a world without clear rules?

In a world where men are detained a decade without trial, tortured, punished by sleep deprivation before a trial has even begun.

Where the people exposing such abuses are jailed.

Where international borders are disrespected, executive assassination orders re-instated, diplomatic protocols disrespected.

Where everyone is a suspect, everyone is watched, and, through the excessive use of secrecy, few are afforded the right to challenge what their governments do in their name.

Yes we have been wronged, and yes we are fighting unsavoury enemies who threaten to use the open nature of our society to attack us.

But without clear rules not only are we endangering the very thing we set out to protect: we give comfort to our enemies.

Humanity is a cornerstone of democracy, once we start acting inhumanely our house comes crashing down.

We demonstrate to those who oppose democracy that even the loudest proponents of democracy can't practice what they preach.

Each line we cross opens hundreds of doors to even more unsavoury outcomes.

What can possibly follow rendition and indefinite detention but death, whether it be at the direct hand of the state, from hunger strike or through a whole life incarcerated.

What can possibly stop states acting on intelligence to further their political goals.

What can possibly prevent state-sanctioned murder when the self-restraint of our leaders evaporates.

What can possibly safeguard against the actions of a few when so many are shackled by over-arching vows of secrecy.

In a world where the rules of normal diplomacy are disobeyed the instruments of peace are blunted.


Tuesday, 2 July 2013

So the entire internet is tapped - let's put the power to good use and keep spies too busy to do evil

The frightening thing about the revelation that practically the entire internet is tapped is not the capacity for governments to enforce the law (crime, terrorism) but for them to use this power to affect the democratic process by e.g. spying on political opponents to fish for dirt.

So now we know the entire internet is bugged let's call for the government to use this power for good, in the hope that doing good will keep them too busy to do evil.

After all, we are constantly told the state needs these powers to keep us safe from cyber-criminals, terrorists and paedophiles.

Let's start with the so-called darknet.  If we believe press fodder its full of crime.

The darknet is basically a collection of websites whose server location is hidden.  Instead of talking directly to the IP address of the website's server, users are forced to talk to an intermediary which shields the visitor from the website's real location and vice-versa.

Because practically all internet end-points in the UK and US are monitored, it is relatively trivial to flush-out darknet servers in these jurisdictions.

Even though many "hidden" service providers claim to take steps to hide traffic signatures, there's only so much any service can to do disguise what is, in effect, an end-to-end pipe.

You wiggle one end and watch all possible other ends for movement.

Step 1: our security services start by identify target sites on the darknet...  The ones offering to supply guns, hit-men, child abuse images, etc.

Step 2: hit each of  these target websites with a series of page requests at specially-timed intervals - a signature pattern of visitation that is unlikely to happen too often in the real world.  Intelligence analysts can then create a filter to look for this signature amongst a pre-filtered list of connections which are identified as carrying some form of hidden traffic.

Step 3:  the short list of internet connections suspected of hosting illegal content from step 2 should be enough suspicion to obtain a targeted surveillance warrant and perform more extensive evidence gathering - visiting each darknet site with another signature pattern of visits whilst actively monitoring the suspected connection -  to prove (or disprove) that the connection is being used to host illegal content.

Step 4: enough evidence now to obtain a physical search warrant and seize the server and build a case against the owner.

Note here an interesting moral dilemma: in some ways surveillance is less intrusive than traditional policing.

Up to step 2 can be performed without looking at the content of communications, analysing only the so-called meta- or communications-data.

But by looking at the content data of the identified short list in step 3 before booting down doors at 6am saves any innocent party wrongly implicated by step 2 the inconvenience of a police raid and having all computer equipment confiscated for up to a year or so as police forensics crawl through their backlog.

I've since argued against legislation to allow mass monitoring of the internet in the UK, however it looks like we already got there without legislation.

Since I believe there's no realistic prospect of a reversal of the surveillance state in the near future - I'm resigned to the state grabbing what it can - we may as well start using the tools for good; and, at the same time, pushing for safeguards to prevent the power being used for nefarious purposes.

In fact given the revelations of late I'm thinking it might now be better to call for the legislation I previously opposed in order to have an open debate about limits and safeguards for an activity that until very recently went on entirely in secret.