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Friday, December 22, 2017

Folk technology knowledge

[Related: The dangers of scoffing at new age cures]

John Gruber argued earlier this year that iOS users are foolish to force quit apps they're not using.

It was an emphatic, condescending, and sneering argument:

The single biggest misconception about iOS is that it’s good digital hygiene to force quit apps that you aren’t using. The idea is that apps in the background are locking up unnecessary RAM and consuming unnecessary CPU cycles, thus hurting performance and wasting battery life.

That’s not how iOS works. The iOS system is designed so that none of the above justifications for force quitting are true. Apps in the background are effectively “frozen”, severely limiting what they can do in the background and freeing up the RAM they were using. iOS is really, really good at this. It is so good at this that unfreezing a frozen app takes up way less CPU (and energy) than relaunching an app that had been force quit. Not only does force quitting your apps not help, it actually hurts. Your battery life will be worse and it will take much longer to switch apps if you force quit apps in the background.

Here’s a short and sweet answer from Craig Federighi, in response to an email from a customer asking if he force quits apps and whether doing so preserves battery life: “No and no.”

Just in case you don’t believe Apple’s senior vice president for software...

Let me pause to point out a glaring assumption here: Gruber is conflating the private beliefs and understanding of Apple’s senior vice president for software with the public statements of Apple’s senior vice president for software, and further, with the empathetic imagination of Apple’s senior vice president for software.

That is, I fully believe Craig Federighi. And knowing the complexities of technology, I believe that when anyone is answering a question like this, there's a range of possible answers and details. Craig Federighi's job, when asked questions by a tech reporter--even one who thinks he's above being told half-truths by the company he makes his living being close to--is emphatically not to let the conversation go into those rabbit holes. Believing him does not tell me whether his answer is fundamentally true, only that it's plausibly true.

Back to Gruber, ready with the deep sneering:

Like with any voodoo, there are die-hard believers. I’m quite certain that I am going to receive email from people who will swear up-and-down that emptying this list of used applications every hour or so keeps their iPhone running better than it would otherwise. Nonsense.

An awful lot of very hard work went into making iOS work like this...

And don’t even get me started on people who completely power down their iPhones while putting them back into their pockets or purses.

Let's start by pointing out that it is unquestionably correct for many people to power down their iPhones while putting them back into their pockets or purses to save power. Gruber knows this. But he's right that many people who do this don't know what a decent--imperfect, but decent--job iOS does of using little power while powered on with the screen off.

The question is tone. I suspect he's way overstating all of his points this way. And he shows you this, with sneaky footnotes that he can point to if people believe him too much:

Sometimes apps do use a bunch of battery in the background, and you're better off quitting them…
In his fine print he even tells you to go to battery settings to figure out which ones are the wasting your battery while running in the background.

Yes, Apple aggressively pushes most apps to obey its published API. But they also aggressively design efficient hardware to make CPU use less of a concern to app developers, and they promote large (and Apple-friendly) players who make clever, often undocumented use of battery-hogging features. Whether you are a brand they feel advances their business is their primary concern. The OS could be far more aggressive about not letting apps use up CPU/battery (and data) in the background.

And it's probably good that they're not more aggressive! They make an informed tradeoff. But when someone with an older phone and OS version comes into the genius bar and says their phone is too slow and uses battery too quickly, and the genius shows them how to force quit apps that run in the background, the genius is probably helping, not promoting a pernicious myth.

Which, again, Gruber knows. Apple's own writing about iOS settings happily points out that lots of apps can suck up battery all day long running in the background. iOS developers know all the crap some apps do in the background that you can't do if the app has been force quit. And yes, iOS users have learned they have to force quit Swarm or Twitter or Candy Crush or whatever to save battery.

I do think it's true that most people who habitually force quit apps regardless of having noticed anything about battery life, as though that's just part of universal smartphone hygiene, don't need to do so. (I offer that in the spirit of "genuine investigation".)

And of course, this week has brought more from the don't-believe-Apple-or-quasi-Apple-mouthpieces like-Gruber dept. It appears that Apple has been secretly forcing their devices' performance to degrade over time, and of course Gruber has a defense of the practice.

There is an explanation for this that it is at least plausible (downgrading CPU when voltage drops can keep the device from crashing unexpectedly), but I wonder what portion of the overall motivation is really explained by this. Note that it has been observed on multiple generations of iOS and plugged-in Mac devices, not just the buggy 6S running on battery.


But I'm not here to slay Gruber. My point is that we should look out for when a writer is in a mental place where he's trying to figure out what's true and describe it and make his best recommendation--let's call that "genuine investigation"--and when the motivation is something else.

And we should be open to knowledge coming in many forms--some from the top down, some from the ground up. As with medicine, folk technology knowledge has unearthed many truths that show, in retrospect, we were wise to ignore experts--particularly ones paid to obfuscate.

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Steven Pinker's critics don't realize he agrees with them

In Science, Michael Price ("Why human society isn’t more—or less—violent than in the past") summarizes recent papers that purport to refute Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Price echoes that point.

I disagree that these arguments contradict Pinker at all!

What Better Angels is most clear about is the thesis that violence has decreased with modernity. That point is not refuted by these abstracts, or their writeups.

And the secondary claim that large, stable societies are less violent is also not refuted.

What they do do is accept Pinker's argument implicitly and talk about a way of interpreting why it might be true.

That's an incredibly common pattern in science! As a paradigm becomes familiar and accepted, aspects of its founding assumptions get reexamined and reinterpreted. Why the various writers cast that as a refutation is a matter of guesswork--my guess is that it's good marketing for attention (a perfectly valid motivation).

Massimo Pigliucci (@mpigliucci) thinks that it also shows that Pinker "may be wrong about the causality".

But I disagree with that treatment of the term "causality". Better Angels is clear only on the historical trend, not on the causality (contra many of its critics, like Nassim Taleb, who suggest its argument is rigid), and suggests there may be interacting and dynamic forces at play.

These papers, as with Pinker, fundamentally only assert that less violent societies are less violent, that less violent societies tend to be more recent, that more recent societies tend to be bigger, that big societies tend to have extensive organization, etc.

Pinker's basic focus is on the constant need in ad hoc tribal societies for people to assert their potential for violence in order to defend themselves, vs. the lack of such need in modern large, liberal countries with business with their neighbors and presumption of security. The "scaling artifact" argument literally shows Pinker is correct about decreasing violence in society!

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The left's outrage is a barrier to achieving its goals

I think Jonathan Haidt's criticism of campus illiberalism is basically correct.

A Twitterer scoffed that denying a eugenicist funding to speak can't be compared to the racist-industral-political machine of death hard at work. And I basically agree.

But campus illiberalism doesn't have to be as big a threat as the rapacious racist right for it to be a block to curiosity and social justice. And it's much scarier than denying a eugenicist the opportunity for funded speech. There has been violence against plenty of people whom protesters don't know the identities of, who may themselves oppose these speakers' viewpoints. There's a very real threat of violence against anyone who just disagrees with the no-platforming itself. And the categories for condemnation are far beyond eugenics.

Are there people who would read my writing and no-platform me? Surround me and block my passage? I don't know. Do you? How confident are you that all the people who experience violence at the hands of leftist protesters on campuses are true enemies of the people? Are even most of them?

And is this shrillness creating more monsters than it stops? Look at Milo's transformation from a whiny video game reporter and awful poet to rightwing provocateur. Is his ability to speak to small gatherings of campus conservatives really a significant problem, as opposed to the prevalence of his views in the first place? Does a furious public response really do anything to solve that problem?

Also, as with many unhealthy movements, I think you can also argue that at its root, this illiberalism is a result of how correct the movement itself has been. That is, oppression has been so deeply messed up for so long in this country, it's not surprising that the forefront of stopping it is messed up too.

When capitalism creates astroturf and destructive plants, the real grassroots gets understandably paranoid about toeing the line.

One of Haidt's points that is being totally overlooked is that there are many voices on the left that are silenced by the demand for uniformity.

Much like in the 1960s, social justice movements form silencing power dynamics within them, and frame criticism of that as disloyalty.

The left itself becomes the biggest victim of this. Valuable Marxist analysis of social dynamics, such as analysis of the aspects of male power and socialization that can persist in trans women, can become anathema.

Some of the people I read who are most passionate about demanding that women's voices be heard are also the most passionate about silencing the voices of women on the left who are a few degrees away from them, eg TERFs (trans-excluding radical feminists).

One sign that these uncrossable lines are more about group solidarity than independently arriving at the same views: the way you frame something has a massive amount to do with whether it is rejected or accepted. Not to mention, obviously, that who expresses an idea has a massive amount to do with whether that idea is accepted or rejected.

Eg, the notion that attention should be given to the internalized sexism of trans women as a category can be seen either as progressive bedrock, or as wildly transphobic--suggesting that trans women's experience and identity as women be denied.

Refusing to allow a white child to dress as a black character, e.g. Cyborg, can either be seen as patently necessary to stop appropriation, or as the essence of racism itself, cementing inchoate and arbitrary social categories into permanent exclusivity and othering.

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Too many stories about privileged white people: an understandable complaint

I at least somewhat understand where people are coming from when they say variations on "I'm not interested in more stories about privileged white people" or "I just can't watch another show about rich white people's problems". (I have heard this recently in response to Ladybird, Pretty Little Lies, and Mrs. Maisel.)

White people, and especially privileged white people, are certainly not in aggregate need of more representation, more funding of our stories, and more audience for us as creators.

And the notion that there should be more stories about, and by, everyone else is absolutely right.

(Not to mention that I also have plenty of complaints about the narrow range of understanding and creativity in some of those shows/movies; eg, I thought PLL was unwatchably boring.)

And, I think it's a mistake to assume that stories can't have something universal to say, just because they're about privileged white people. (Not to mention how it's reductive to lump Ladybird in there.)

I think we can demand walls and ceilings in Hollywood and TV and everywhere come down, and we can say there's something wrong when so few women and people of color are allowed into the networks of mentorship, money, and power. And, we can be open to there being something valuable to humanity about telling the story of, say, rich Nicole Kidman's domestic abuse.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in answer to the question "Where is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?" that Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.

The problems of representation and access are deep. That makes the categorical complaint especially understandable.

But it's when complaints are most "understandable" that we should be the most alert to the doors they close in our imaginations.

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Friday, December 08, 2017

John Dvorak thinks Apple is preparing to ditch the Mac

In a purely speculative piece, John Dvorak wonders if "Apple Is Ready to Ditch the Mac".

He doesn't make his point convincingly, to me, but I think there's a good chance he's right.

I do think as a piece of the ecosystem that keeps users tied to Apple in general, the Mac is probably worth far more than its sales alone. But you can already see with the Mac Pro debacle that simply abandoning a segment of the market is close to being a smart move for Apple.

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Thursday, December 07, 2017

Did You Ask a Good Question Today?

I came across this excellent 1988 letter about the physicist Isador Rabi, from the NY Times, in which a reader retells a favorite anecdote of mine:
To the Editor:

Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics who died Jan. 11, was once asked, ''Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?''

His answer has served as an inspiration for me as an educator, as a credo for my son during his schooling and should be framed on the walls of all the pedagogues, power brokers and politicians who purport to run our society.

The question was posed to Dr. Rabi by his friend and mine, Arthur Sackler, himself a multitalented genius, who, sadly, also passed away recently. Dr. Rabi's answer, as reported by Dr. Sackler, was profound: "My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: 'So? Did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. 'Izzy,' she would say, 'did you ask a good question today?' That difference--asking good questions--made me become a scientist!"

This world of "Ready, Fire, Aim" would be a far better place if all the world's leaders, starting in particular with our President, hearkened to this wisdom. It's time to stop giving answers before we understand the questions.

New York
Jan. 12, 1988

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