Switchback: Talking Tech (Sept. 5)

Sep 05, 2014

The team from The Switch discussed everything from the latest political tech news to the gadgets you’re eyeing.

Hello! Let's get this started!

Am I the only one who has trouble typing on a perfectly flat screen?

You're not. I'm pretty lousy at it, certainly as compared to my speed on a normal keyboard. I also find that typing on a touchscreen for too long gives me wrist problems. 

If you have an Android or Windows device, you might want to try swipe keyboard programs, which let you drab your finger from key to key to compose your messages. If you're an Apple user, I'd recommend making liberal use of the dictation feature. Neither is a perfect option, but it can save you some wrist strain.

Or, you could always get a portable keyboard.  I have one for my iPad mini that hooks on to the edge with a magnet, essentially giving me a teeny tiny netbook.

Team Swipe.

Maybe it would help if you got a speaker that plays typewriter noises

It seems like the Obama team is pushing patent and other elements of intellectual property policy in a progressive direction over the last couple of years. Look at the combination of the patent troll legislation they were pushing, the Supreme Court cases, and the decision to pull back that Patent Office nominee. Do you see this as a sign of tech finally having a say? Will it last? Who's responsible?

I'd say this is bigger than the White House. The most the Obama administration can do is foster an environment where everyone simply accepts that changes to IP policy are necessary. Take the Senate's failed patent legislation this year. Much as Obama might've tried to push that through, ultimately lobby groups and legislative politics were to blame for thwarting that bill. By design, the Supreme Court likewise doesn't issue opinions based on the president's wishes. 

As tech companies and software gradually become a more central part of the economy, we'll probably see Silicon Valley's perspective on patents start to win out. For now, Obama's mostly along for the ride.


I think there's some degree to which some parts of the Obama administration are newly waking up to some aspects of the so-called intellectual property debate. It was so look focused on patents et al as an economic issue -- you protected copyrights, patents, etc. because that's what you did when you wanted to protect the interests of the American economy. Any thinking that ran counter to than was considered kinda fringe. That's changing in quite a few ways and through quite a few channels. I think Larry Lessig's work on Creative Commons has been part of that, just by opening up hearts and minds to the idea that copyright, at least, wasn't an absolute. And the increasingly vocal Internet-centric tech industry has been a big part of it -- IP is vital to their interests, too, if in different ways than in other, older industries, and they're saying that in public and in private. 'People of the Internet' are learning to rally and frame their values as valid political considerations. And more and more people are going into government service thinking less reflexively about all this stuff. So it seems to me part of a culture shift that the Obama administration is sometimes leading but mostly, as Brian suggests, just a reflection of. 

I'm not sure how comfortable I am with the possibility of someone from Silicon Valley coming in to serve as CTO. It makes me worry that we might have another Dingo situation. 

I don't know that those sort of policy questions are things that Megan Smith has tackled in her long and deep career; she has focused more on business development and innovation -- especially in recent years with her work at Google[x]. Some of those policy topics will fall under the purview of her deputy, Alex Macgillivray, and he comes out of a school of thought that is generally pretty strongly pro-neutrality regulations. 

I suppose we have to talk about this today, right? Is there something fundamentally not secure about iCloud? Or cloud services in general? Or was it the way the celebs had their accounts set up (password security/security questions)? On another note, do celebs take more nude photos than the rest of us or do most people have that much on their phones that they wouldn't want to get out? If you hacked mine, the worst thing you'd get is a pic of the time I banged up my toe and it looked really gross (not judging the celebs though - do what you want on your own phone, I dont' care)

The photos are fun to talk about for obvious reasons. But think of all the non-photographic content you might have stored on your phone that you wouldn't want to wind up in the wrong hands. Sensitive e-mails showing what you've purchased online, or a list of the apps you use, or even the names, phone numbers and addresses in your address book. 

One reason this is relevant is that the hackers may have gotten to the photos by accessing entire backups of the celebrities' phones — basically, a clone of the entire device. We don't know this for certain, but it's one theory that security researchers are considering. It's not just nude photos you should worry about.

Another point is that celebrities aren't the only targets here. Ten million people a year get hit by identity theft, according to the FTC. These are ordinary people like you and me, and ordinary people are just as susceptible to creating weak passwords and security questions. As Andrea points out, you can make security questions harder to game by just giving out false answers. There are things Apple could've done, too — like limiting the number of password attempts or forbidding users from creating weak passwords in the first place. None of this necessarily makes iCloud inherently insecure. But it seems in this case to have been a major oversight.

Is there a way to find out if someone has attempt to get into my email or any other private information?

Most services SHOULD lock out someone if they make repeated unsuccessful attempts to login, or alert you -- but we don't live in a digital world where should and do are interchangable.

But some e-mail providers, including Gmail also offer you the ability to see when new devices have accessed you account and will send alerts if they suspect unusual activity. However, the best defense generally available right now is really to use two-factor authentication -- which typically means you get a text with some code to input every time you try to login from a new device -- on all services that offer it. And most major e-mail providers do. 

Do smaller tv screens use less electricity?

They do, but normally not enough to make a huge difference in your electricity bill -- probably a few bucks per year, in most cases. What matters more is what type of television you get. LCDs are more efficient, for example, than plasma TVs.

The U.S. government (I think the EPA, but I'm not 100 percent sure) requires all TVs to carry a label stating how much power they are estimated to use each year, so that's a pretty handy guide if you're really concerned about power consumption.

Aaaaaand go.

Grammar be damned, data is. 

I always try to use it as a plural noun, but I also always have to think about it. Post style, though, allows for either. 

"Use singular verbs and pronouns when the meaning is 'information," to quote the guide.

Fivethirtyeight makes a compelling argument (with data, of course) for readability over technical accuracy. If "data is" is good enough for them, it's good enough for me.

I'm a "data is" person. It's just too awkward for me the other way. And I think there's an argument to be made that it just simply meshes with the way people think about data: it's a thing, not individual bits of things. 

If Twitter users revolt and leave, where are they going?

It'll be interesting to see if Tweetdeck usage increases. Tweetdeck — what used to be a third-party Twitter app until Twitter bought it — is a favorite among power-users. If Twitter decides to allow an unfiltered experience on Tweetdeck to mollify that audience, then presumably the people who really want that will wind up there as opposed to the Twitter Web app, which currently accounts for the vast majority of Twitter usage.

If you're saying that Twitter users will simply stop using the service, then I don't really know where they'd go. I don't think people would stop using Twitter, because there's really nothing like it on the market right now. But the service would become markedly different, and that would be sad.

My gut reaction was "I'll believe it when I see it." Anyone remember Identi.ca? That was the open-source microblogging alternative people were talking about one of the first times everyone got mad at Twitter and threatened to leave. 

But as I think about it, I think you could see a really popular social network start morphing a bit to where they're offering Twitter-like experiences -- maybe even without some of the confusing bits that make Twitter difficult for a lot of people to understand. I'm thinking of Instagram in particular here. Sure, journalists might not ever step away from the Twitter; it's too addictive. But I could see lots of people getting what they need from an Instagram that was a little more networked, a little more webby, and a little more immediate. 

Do you remember the tablet from CES a few years ago that grew a keyboard when you needed it?

That is so awesome. I'd be so happy if *half* of the things shown at  CES ever came to market, though. 

I still think that if you are using your tablet consistently for a lot of typing, then buying a keyboard for it is a good idea. Of course, most of those are flat, too. We may all be doomed to carpel tunnel syndrome.

Bit of a selfish question. I'm curious to know what you think of The Washington Post's new publisher, Fred Ryan. Do people even care about stuff like this?

The Obama administration is bringing on some big names from the tech set as Chief Technology Officer and Deputy CTO. But what exactly does this role do? On the spot expertise in technology matters? Given that the U.S. CTO won't be making technology purchasing decisions (which is what most corporate CTOs do) it all seems a little nebulous.

It's a good question! And its nebulousness is by both (lack of) design and recent experience, I think. The job was first floated as a campaign promise, in some ways to signal to the tech world Obama's priorities. During the transition and such there was a push to make the job pretty powerful -- even a Cabinet position right off the bat. But my understanding is that during that jockeying for power that unfilled seat kinda lost some of those struggles. And so it doesn't have much in the way of budget or staff. The first CTO interpreted it as an advisory role and a pretty broad one; he focused a lot on standards and on innovation. The second one focused on some of those things but also on opening up government in various ways. He was pulled into helping save HealthCare.gov but I think the pendulum is swinging back to a much more advisory role -- including helping the president understand when what he's hearing from the agencies does and doesn't make sense. But like any job, I think, it is in many ways what the holder makes of it. 

I, for one, would love to see the CTO position become more of an expectation for incoming new presidents. As Nancy pointed out in one of her articles, the risk here is that the CTO just fades into the background and becomes just another role to fill, or a swanky favor to be given out. But institutionalizing the CTO role would likely create budgetary pressures to justify its existence, meaning that whoever held the job would be expected to make a contribution to government of some kind.

One of the things that I hear about institutionalizing the job -- which some in Congress have tried off and on to do -- is that not every president is going to want to have a tech advisor. But it seems like maybe the future is conspiring to make that, you now, not really and option for the president of the United States. 

Folks, the battery is putting a bulge in the bottom of my 2007 MacBook, and I think it's time to replace the computer. In general, I'm looking for something durable and lightweight that will travel well. I don't game, but I do need enough power to run a dozen tabs or so at a time. I don't want to spend the money for another Apple product, but I'm worried about security and all the bad reviews of Windows 8. What hardware and operating system would you recommend?

Sounds like you really don't need all the extra bells and whistles you'd get out of a Mac, which throws you into a very complex and sometimes confusing world. 

Generally, I'd say that I trust HP, Asus and Acer to make good, durable computers, and they have a range of choices and prices that can help you find the right specs for you. They should all be able to handle even heavy Web browsing, though. Lenovos are also generally pretty good. If you've got a little more money to spend, you may also consider the Microsoft Surface, which is actually pretty good.

Windows 8 isn't as super-scary as it used to be, but  I would recommend actually going into a store (I know) and trying it out before you buy to make sure its little quirks won't drive you crazy. It's kind of hard to find a new laptop that's still running Windows 7 at the moment, but it's definitely an option to consider if Windows 8 just drives you bonkers. 

I'm going to throw security questions to Andrea.

So, it's no secret that I'm the only PC user here and I sort of hate Windows 8. But it's now my prime operating system on one of my main machines, and you know what? I live with it fine, mostly because I spent a little labor upfront (maybe an hour or two) trying to minimize all of the stupid gimmicks that came with it. 

Security wise, there are honestly probably more risks. That's not necessarily because it's an inherently less secure OS, but because Microsoft products are more widely used, and thus a more significant target. However, a good (even free) virus scanner that you set to autorun on a regular basis will probably keep you mostly okay as long as you follow basic digital hygiene like staying out of the shadier parts of the Internet -- or at least not clicking untrusted links or advertisements there. Oh, and being able to spot phishing e-mails. 

And Apple isn't immune to viruses or security flaws either, but as more and more of our stuff is moved into the cloud I really find myself more worried about the security of things that are living outside my machine. 

Just think of it as "this here pile o'data" is...

So what's the next big thing in email? I feel like there hasn't been a major innovation there in a decade or so.

It's amazing how many e-mails I get from e-mail management startups. That really seems to be where everyone is focusing their energy right now in the e-mail world -- just figuring out how to wade through it, especially to make mobile devices ideal for more than just reading e-mail.

Personally, I'm a fan of apps such as Mailbox, which let you schedule e-mail to read later, because there are often things I see in my inbox that I want to answer -- just not right that second. And I'm most impressed with the e-mail programs that make meaningful connections to your calendar and contacts, so you can easily forward things to groups, make calendar events, etc. I think the first people to really crack that problem will be in a good position.

No. Do you care who my boss is?

I recently had to replace my 2007 Macbook -- went with the mini this time -- and the new keyboard is like a slanted laptop keyboard. I HATED using it and went back to a big clunky Windows keyboard that feels like a keyboard. I showed the USB dongle to the Genius (50+ guy like me) and his adolescent partner asked "hey, what's that?" Get off my lawn etc.

What have you folks been reading about this week? I was out of commission for most of it and feel like I'm still playing catch up. What caught your attention? 

I really loved this deep dive on Luddites.

Just trust me.

Seconding the  Luddite piece. 

First, thanks for all the great questions this week, everyone. I'm going to selfishly throw one out to you here now. I'm headed to Apple's event in Cupertino next week, and I'd love to know what you want out of our coverage. We'll do all the normal off-the-news announcements, videos, etc., but is there anything more that you'd like to know? 

I think it's a smart hire for three reasons: (1) he's a businessman, not a newspaper lifer; (2) he's not a committed lefty, which will help the Post's image among the rest of the population; (3) dynasties only work when there's no competition.

Anyone have any responses to this?

While some folks have been seeking out beheading videos and nude celebrity photos, from where I sit it seems like the most common reaction has been to speak out against doing so. Is this something you've noticed too, and if so, what does it suggest about the Internet's ability to develop cultural norms that are based on an empathetic standard rather than devolving to the lowest-common denominator of Hitler analogies, ad hominem attacks and overt sexism or racism?

Is the fact the CNN thought "4chan" was a single hacker's handle, rather than an anything-goes message board, hilarious? Does thinking it is hilarious make me a technology elitist? More seriously, the nude leaks seem to have energized some in the feminist movement to push for reform of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This has been bubbling for a while with the controversy about Backpage and revenge porn over the past few years. Does a CDA 230 reform movement have any legs?

Really, that has people talking about Section 230 reform? I haven't heard that and there are few things I'd rather talk about than Section 230. I'll need to Google. 

Generally speaking, though, I'm always a little surprised by how often a public reaction to these sorts of things is to push for more online gatekeepers. I'm thinking in particular of the calls you hear when, for example, the Apple story approves an anti-gay-people app. 

On the 4chan thing, I try not to judge too harshly; reporting can be hard. But a lot of the coverage of tech stuff (by both the tech-ish and not tech press) can be pretty muddled. I sometimes wonder if the topic lends itself to that or if, say, you were a farmer what you read about farming in the media made your skin crawling. 

I don't know if it's necessarily new. Open communities have always been filled mostly with good people and pockets of bad people. See: reddit. In the comments on YT vids and newspaper articles, the bad voices often seem prevalent because the good people don't bother contributing - there's no incentive there, since it's not actually a community but a bunch of people yelling into the ether. But anywhere there are communities online, community norms develop, and in the vast majority of places, those norms support positive behaviors rather than negative ones.

I'm heartened by this. Anyone else?

"(1) he's a businessman, not a newspaper lifer; (2) he's not a committed lefty, which will help the Post's image among the rest of the population; " No, he's a committed right-winger. I think a former Reaganite and one of the founders of Politico is too partisan for the Post.

For what it's worth, someone did ask about this when Fred Ryan met with the whole staff. He invited us to check ourselves if his political leanings showed up in his past publications, such as Politico. 



Actually, we've mostly been looking at pictures...

Yeah, I'm going to have a heart to heart here even though I'm pretty sure this is a joke. Huge segments of people online were titillated and, well, excited about the celebrity nudes. And that's pretty gross.

They are stolen property and every person who looks at them is participating in the violation of the privacy of other human beings. And everyone talking making a comment about how if you don't want nude photos end up posted publicly you shouldn't take them is walking too close to the line of victim blaming for my comfort.

Oh, and some of the downloaders of photos may have been looking at child pornography. 

I'd like to hear less about the fancy new things (everyone covers that!) and more about the big picture (how it fits into the evolution of the Apple products, what didn't get included, etc).

Alright, thanks for the feedback! I will do my best -- I do think that this will be an important moment in the arc of Apple's storyline, particularly in the post-Jobs era. I know it seems like old hat to talk about Apple being "post-Jobs," but it's still totally something they're dealing with.

Take if from somebody who's been typing for over 30 years: use Siri or voice recognition software like Dragon whenever you can and save your wrists, thumbs, and elbows from repetitive stress injuries.

We'll see you next week.

In This Chat
Brian Fung
Andrea Peterson
Hayley Tsukayama
Nancy Scola
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