I Take Full Responsibility For Apple Inc Protecting The Privacy of a Dead Terrorist

Green Door, by leeroy

Apple have refused an FBI request to help crack the iPhone of a terrorist.

Ray McClure, the uncle of murdered soldier Drummer Lee Rigby has said that Apple is protecting terrorists, and that ‘life comes before privacy’.

I think Drummer Rigby’s uncle is mistaken, both in his assumptions about what Apple is technically capable of, and the moral trade-off between life and privacy.

We need to understand that Apple are not being asked to decrypt just the iPhone of one particular terrorist.  They are not like a landlord with a spare key that will open a particular door.  If they were, then there would be legitimacy in Mr McClure’s complaints.  A judge could examine the particular case at hand, and then sign a warrant that permitted entry to the property or decryption of a device.  Targeted surveillance and privacy violations are a legitimate law enforcement tool.

But that is not the request.  Instead, the FBI have asked Apple to hack their entire operating system in such a way that would enable them to by-pass encryption on any iPhone.  Including mine. Continue reading “I Take Full Responsibility For Apple Inc Protecting The Privacy of a Dead Terrorist”

In Praise of The Room Three

For the past few weeks I’ve been playing The Room series, a set of three games for mobile devices by Fireproof Games.  This week I completed The Room Three, and thought I’d write a quick review.

The premise of all three games is simple.  The player is presented with an ornate contraption, and the task is to unlock the secrets contained within.  Do you pull this lever, or press that button? What combination of switches must you flick in order to open the door? How do I make that panel slide back? Where is the key that fits that lock? Continue reading “In Praise of The Room Three”

7 free OCR apps for the iPhone reviewed

Yesternight I went looking for Optical Character Recognition (OCR) apps.

For the jargon wary and the jargon weary, OCR is the process by which a computer converts a scanned image of some text to actual editable, malleable computer text. It’s a useful tool to have on hand, especially if your work (or play) deals with anything literary or historical.  Like speech recognition software, its also a bit magical.

I wanted to transcribe a few noteworthy pages of a novel, to paste into my Commonplace Book. Rather that wait a few hours until I could use my office facilities to scan and convert the text, I sought recommendations online and did a search of Apple’s App Store.

Continue reading “7 free OCR apps for the iPhone reviewed”

IncarcerApp: Toddler Mode for the iPhone

This post by Peter Merholz from 2010 stuck in my head:

Toddlers love the home button. Being the only physical button on the device, and thus the only the that provides tactile satisfaction, toddlers press the button all the time. Particularly while using an app they really like. And they don’t realize that pressing this gets them out of the app. And after they press it, they then look at you, as if to suggest something is broken, and you need to help them.

(Via Kottke).

On a Jailbroken iOS device, IncarcerApp gives users a way to solve this problem, by temporarily disabling the home button on a phone.

This tweak is, I think, a perfect illustration of why users might wish to legitimately jailbreak their device.  The term Jailbreaking carries negative connotations.  It suggests a link to piracy, copyright theft, data theft, and the spreading of malware.  But the tweak described above is about none of these things:  It is about a common design/usability problem that many people encounter.  Why shouldn’t these parent-users have control over the core functionality of their devices, so that their children can use the device for entertainment and education?  Why does Apple place barriers to this kind of action?  I would bet that if the functionality provided by IncarcerApp were available by default on iPhones and iPads, educational apps for very young children would become more popular.

Retreat To The Corporate Silos

Here is a technology trend I have spotted: it may be old hat to experts and tech journalists, but its news to me.

First, I installed iOS 6 for my iPhone this week. As had been extensively trailed, Apple has switched out the Google Maps app for its own, proprietary mapping service. It is a weaker product.

Then, yesterday, I received an e-mail from IFTTT (If This, Then That, an excellent tool that allows you to automate many tasks between online services, such as cross-posting blogs, auto-tweeting, or logging your social media activity). The e-mail said:

In recent weeks, Twitter announced policy changes that will affect how applications and users like yourself can interact with Twitter’s data. As a result of these changes, on September 27th we will be removing all Twitter Triggers, disabling your ability to push tweets to places like email, Evernote and Facebook.

This is really irritating, as I use IFTTT for many Twitter related tasks.

So, in a single week, I’ve been inconvenienced by the decision of two of the biggest brands in technology to stop co-operating with other services. There is no law that says that they must collaborate, of course, but this is still a dismal state of affairs. I wonder if these announcements might be the beginning of a new era of unco-operation, with more and more products becoming locked, proprietary, and incompatible with one another. I cannot see how this can be good for innovation, small businesses and start-ups in the sector, or the users… Though I do see how it might maximise revenue for the big companies.

The previous high-minded rhetoric that came from these companies makes their current revenue-maximising attitude all the more galling. It has become trite to point out how Apple has changed since it premiered its famous Nineteen Eighty-Four advert at the Superbowl; and Google’s motto was “do no evil”. These latest manœvres, retreating into the corporate silos, are a reminder of the corrupting influence of power and money, and puts one in the mind of the final passages of Animal Farm, when it becomes impossible to tell man from pig, pig from man.

I await deliverance with an iOS 6 Jailbreak.

Trainyard and Neural Pathways

By far the best iPhone game I have come across is Trainyard. Is a deceptively simple puzzle, in which the player lays tracks to guide a set of coloured trains from their starting points to a goal. It has all the features of a great game: the rules are few, simple and intuitive. The puzzles are solved on a 7×7 grid, which gives the impression that a correct solution is on the cusp of revealing itself. The graphic design and sound design give you a satisfying mental ‘pay off’ when a puzzle is solved. This all adds to the addictive quality. It is no surprise it is one of the highest ranking games in the App Store.

Until recently, Trainyard’s only flaw was that it had a set number of puzzles to play. When they were solved, the payer had to go cold turkey. Playing a pre-solved puzzle was dull. However, with the latest update, the game’s creator Matt Rix has solved this problem, by providing an ‘engineer’ feature. Players can now create their own puzzle and upload it to Trainyard site for others to download and solve. This adds an element of competitiveness, and also social play, which makes the project as perfect as can be on it’s own terms. Highly recommended.

The ‘engineer’ feature has an interesting constraint. You cannot upload a self-made puzzle to the website unless you have solved it yourself. For a while I wondered why the computer could not already perceive which puzzles were solvable, and which were unsolvable… But then I remembered Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, as explained to me in the sprawling Pulitzer Prize winning meditation on symmetry, mathematics, loops and consciousness, Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. Trainyard is, I think, a perfect little companion to this bizarre, genre defying book.

The cover of Godel, Escher, Back gives some clue to its esoteric subject matter
The cover of Godel, Escher, Back gives some clue to its esoteric subject matter

Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem says that in any consistent mathematic system will have certain “undecidable statements” which the system will not be able to answer either way. There will be true statements that nevertheless cannot be proven within that system. This holds for Trainyard, which is definitely a mathematic system with just a few logical rules. If you translate the elements of a puzzle (the starting points, gates, tracks, switch points, the colours of the trains, the goals, and the grid) into a mathematic formula (which, of course, you can do because the iPhone is essentially a mathematical machine, manipulating millions of 1’s and 0’s each second) there would be no equation or test that could consistently tell you whether the puzzle could be solved or not. The only way to tell is to run the puzzle, set off the trains, and see what happens. With some puzzles (such as this one) it is actually quite easy for even a novice player to work out that the puzzle has been solved, but the computer has to run it (all 10,603,843 steps) to confirm that fact.

Kurt Gödel
Kurt Gödel

The second link with Godel, Escher, Bach is to do with synapses, and how elements as simple and as binary as a neurones can give rise to enough symbols and signals to constitute a consciousness. Trainyard works wonderfully well as a metaphor for neural pathways, but it is only with the addition of the ‘engineer’ feature that this becomes apparent.

What do we notice when we look at the game in this way? (1) First of all anyone playing the game can see how the same track layout can result in completely different outcomes, depending on the number of trains sent from any given start position. On a related point, it is also interesting to see tiny changes to the track layout can fundamentally alter the outcome, once the trains are set in motion.

One of 3403 solutions to 'A Barrel Roll', one of the puzzles on Trainyard
One of 3403 solutions to 'A Barrel Roll', one of the puzzles on Trainyard

Through this, one can begin to comprehend how a brain, with very simple building blocks can give rise to huge, complex patterns, which is what is required to perceive and interact with the world. We can see how an apparently fixed set of neurones can act in different ways, depending on the precise nature of the stimulus.

A different insight – one only needs to play Trainyard for a short period of time to see how the same outcome can be achieved in a near infinite number of different ways – for each puzzle in game, users have submitted hundreds of unique solutions. It’s not really important how you get there, just so long as the right pattern emerges. When thinking about brains (artificial or biological), the lesson might be that trying to discover a particular set of pathways could be a red herring. If you were to do so, you would only understand one brain, not The Human Brain. We all have different patterns and pathways in our cerebal cortexts, and it is the different pathways we take to make the same patterns, that makes us unique.

Finally, it is worth remembering the insight of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. When you get to a sufficiently complex puzzle solution,you can never know whether it will produce the desired outcome, until you set the train running. This will hold for the artificial brains we create on circuit boards and in the RAM of computers – we won’t know whether the pattern we have created will work, until we have tried it. Which means we can’t work out the ‘correct’ pattern in advance. We’ll need to create some process of trial and error – a metaphor for evolution – before we hit on a correct pattern, and win our mental payoff.