Category Archives: Technology

The Sad Reality about “Privacy”

East Germany. Steve Jobs. Edward Snowden. All of these remind us to a world today where “privacy” is more like a kind of “data trick” than anything “that works”.

In the former East Germany, the Stasi was so powerful that it eventually made a large part of the population spy — sometimes on one another. I was also quite aghast to hear that Steve Jobs spied on you — it is quite one thing thing to “think different”, but quite different to be spied upon — “spy different”? I shudder with fear…

Edward Snowden. This figure needs a mere passing mention and we’d know precisely what the story would lead us into. If you have to tap into the German chancellor to be double-sure she’s not plotting something against you… for God’s sake, I trust my wife to get the potatoes trimmed the right size so I don’t choke on them.

The sad reality about “privacy” is more like a “data trick”. Everyone knows that Luxembourg was the 22nd country I visited — before I posted it here — because my database storing which countries I’ve been to is on Dropbox, and they claim themselves “private” and “protecting your files”. We’ve been through this before — it’s (potentially) a mere ploy to get your money. I’ve nothing against Dropbox (many other websites are in the business of collecting your data and potentially “getting dirty” with it); and if I had beef against the NSA, I wouldn’t precisely be alone, certainly not after the recent scandals. Angela Merkel might have mightier beef against that great big CIA than any mere individual who was not a public officer.

If I remember right, China during Mao’s maniacal Culture Revolution was so out-of-control that secrets had to be shared in the toilet with the water / shower running (or one of those super-loud squat toilets flushing), so nobody overheard you. I’d say we’re back to that era right now. I would not be surprised if somebody spoofed a copy of my autobiography based solely on the contents I posted on Facebook, Twitter, and Weibo. I got my iPhone 5 replaced last day — thankfully not with a 5S. Get one of these devices and it’d be like you giving away your fingerprint — there are determined hackers and they will get you. It’s all for the money, really, is it not?

As academics we do have to maintain a healthy dose of critical thinking, but from what I have seen so far, “critical thinking” is like painting the sky rose. I remain extremely sceptical, even cynical, about “privacy” in this day and age. I’d probably buy your service more if you said “Give us the money so we can have legal access to your PIN code” than this rubbish about “privacy”. Give it up, everyone: We have no more privacy to speak of.

Entering A New Era of Computing

I think I was still a kid when:—

  • computers were reserved for teachers only;
  • only during computer class were students allowed to use them;
  • students used notebooks (the traditional variant) during class;
  • we looked upon those who brought a laptop into class to take notes on as probably someone even more “special” than maybe Kim Jeong-un (who apparently was educated in Switzerland; it doesn’t show, though, as his threat of nukes doesn’t look like a neutral solution!)

OK. I digress — I went a little off on “Li’l Kim”. But still, even in the early 2000s (remember, this is the 21st century!), we used computers in ways that you had to save a file on one computer. And there was just about no way to finish it off on a second without emailing it to you! (Emailing yourself sure sounds weird, but oh well…!)

But then we had this weird thing called MediaWiki (and also WordPress) appearing. Suddenly, you could write stuff, save it as a draft (or as the real thing), and edit it on another machine without anything out of the blue happening. Then we had Dropbox. And now, cloud services, including Apple’s iCloud. Suddenly, we take the ability to start things on one device and to finish it off on another device — snap, just like that — as granted!

On the one hand, our lives have never been as digitised as today. You see it all in 7 year olds on high speed trains in our part of the world, who get busy with Temple Run whilst cruising at 300+ km/h. You see it in Yours Truly, who finished one tad of this article in Room A, and then gets the other part done on the Metro, before assembling it in another place — with probably another device.

We are living in an era of a completely different computing paradigm. Not only has Twitter fragmented information delivered to us, but we are also fragmenting our works. Are what we’re coming out with of a higher quality? Probably not — it’s hard to do a chef d’oeuvre when your mind isn’t exactly in one centralised place at one fixed time. But maybe it is the case, after all — if you suddenly hit upon the ideal blog post whilst commuting on Line 6, you can now finish it off in the office.

For better or for worse, we as computer-ised (let’s face it) humans have changed the ways in which we think, thanks to both the computer and, in particular, the Internet. We don’t even need to look at how different we’ll be by the 22nd century (God save me if I can still be here for this). We’ll look at ourselves in yet again a different computing-related paradigm by the end of this decade alone.

About 10 years ago, I’d have thought a trip to Changsha, South China, by train, would take maybe two or three days. Now, you do that in just about 5-6 hours on a fast train. About a decade back, I thought the Internet was only here to send emails and to do basic web pages where you tooted your horn. I never thought the era of the Internet became that where we are online by default (instead of being offline). Is the future scary? It’s not going to be the same as the past, that’s a given. It’s scary if you see black — and otherwise if you see any other colour.

Especially if you’re an optimist.

Ideally, a digitised one.

Apple is the New Microsoft

Oh — so it turned out that the 1984 thing about 30-odd years ago was a hoax?

Indeed. Apple challenged IBM. Apple challenged Microsoft. And just like the US, which challenged the Brits to break free, it’s now the monster itself. I fondly remember my Macs that simply never broke — the Mac Portable worked great for years until the Sad Mac Icon (of Death) brought it down. (That was because I used ResEdit to work on a living, breathing, in-use copy of the OS back then!)

But now, I’m forced to restart the MacBook Air like three times again just to gain wifi access. Apple still seems to be living in the Stone Age — it pioneered wifi with the then UFO-esque AirPort, so it seems to have kept wireless as something “optional”. Wifi connections are now all over the place. It simply does not make sense to still default to a wired connection just to get something done whilst you’re on the go.

I’m not talking about a “harmonious” restart, which simply never happened. The thing was that I had to force the machine to shut down — and then wait a tad until it “comes to” and restarts. Apple’s QC (quality control) has really nosedived. I remember the PowerBook G4 (Titanium), whose screen just died less than a year of me using it. The iBooks were terrible — it was hard getting work done without the hard drive dying all the time. And now the OS is a mess. Obviously trying to milk itself rich in last-ditch efforts, Apple cares more about their iStuff than the thing that put them on the map — the Mac.

Apple’s now a living, breathing carbon copy of Microsoft. They go after the users (with sub-par systems and stability). They go after China (trying to brainwash everyone into donating their kidneys for the latest iExcuse). And now they’re turning on their loyal user base.

I’m off to get a Microsoft Surface. I know that Windows is close to death as well, but I don’t want my last few days here to be iDays…

Zuckerberg’s Got A Billion Users on Facebook

And to me this sets off alarm bells.

Imagine what you can do to one billion people — just by flicking a switch. This problem already “plagues” India and China. It has now hit Facebook as well.

When you “lead” a billion, there’s a huge amount of responsibility. I don’t see that in Facebook, which has a privacy issue, as well as the bigger issue of balancing money with community. For governments, they’re doing something a little more different: to them, money is less of an issue (although it still is an issue). But it’s probably too easy to make money off a billion — and Zuckerberg’s charting new territory right now. The temptation to mix and match money with the masses is too great right now. Even in China, which is in less economic ruins than the US, has a problem with this — about balancing that fine line between social good and economic gains.

I’m cautious and tend to be a little pessimistic about this, and for good cause. If I myself had a site with a billion users, I could easy get out of control. It’s human nature. Zuckerberg’s got to be a little careful here. I’m not saying he’ll get greedy; he might contain the greed and not do morally unjust stuff here.

I’d much rather that Zuckerberg and Co take the initiative now with their billionth user online to keep improving Facebook. And by that I mean serving the user base with less pretentious stuff — for example, by “abusing” friends less for a few cheap ads. It’s not cool using your friends and users to “make money”. I’d say do something like probably use that bit of cash for good. Give it to charity (if you do already, give more). Most of us equate Facebook as a huge platform where friends “make” money. We don’t really like that. None of us wants to see our friends “sell” us stuff “just like that”.

Use the power of a billion wisely.

PS: This is outright horrible.

Cloud Computing in Baby Language

Ordinary hard drive: My files are on my hard drive.
Cloud drive: My files will ultimately be on someone else’s drive.

That’s how I differentiate between the two. The files on my local Mac will forever belong to me — and the same will apply to all other Mac users as well. Lest someone breaks in your system, your files are safe with you for life. (Or until the HD clicks into death. Yikes.)

But were you thinking of unloading your secret passwords onto, say, Dropbox? Not that I detest Dropbox — in fact, quite the opposite is true chez moi. But I don’t think a cloud drive’s a safe bet (yet) for your 50-character long banking passcode for the simple (conservative) reason that you don’t (physically) own your drive. Worst case scenario: your enemy owns the drive. (Very rare indeed — but who knows?) Now that’s going to kind of hurt…

Let’s say you’re storing files you shouldn’t. The worst thing you can do to dump it is to incinerate your Mac if it’s on your local drive. But on a cloud drive? Short of knowing which exact drive(s) your file’s on, you’d have to bring a whole data centre to their makers, and that’d be one heck of an offence.

Of course, there’s something else about cloud drives: the fact that you’d be able to travel without, say, the need for a clunky laptop (which with the iPad and the MacBook Air are no longer clunky thingies — and the 16-pound large Mac Portable was a late 1980s device just about every last soul on the planet has already forgotten about). I personally find that more comforting. The faregates chez the Beijing Subway were obviously not designed for regular Fatburger patrons, and more than once did I take a fair bit of time to clear these. Without a laptop (and with your file saved on to a cloud drive), you’d be easily be able to make it through the gates and onto a crowded subway train.

And if you were tuning into Sliding Doors, two different worlds might await you — depending on if you caught your train — or not…