Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Syncing is harder than it looks

It used to be that Apple's marketing didn't grossly outstrip its technology. That happy state no longer appears to be the case.

TheVerge.com has an article entitled, "Apple's broken promise: why doesn't iCloud 'just work'?" by Ellis Hamburger. While a simple form of synchronization, so-called Document-based sync, works reasonably well, the equally important synchronization of Core Data, a key Apple technology that wraps databases, is unreliable.

Many problems stem from the fact that Apple doesn’t account for edge cases where users do unexpected things, like sign out of one Apple ID and sign in with another.
Apple has made the situation immeasurably worse for its third-party developers by inaccurately (or, if you're inclined to be suspiciaus, falsely) giving the impression that iCloud synchronization just works, no matter the circumstances.
One of the toughest parts is that customers demand iCloud support after seeing Apple marketing, yet developers can’t deliver. "One key thing to understand is that user’s perception of iCloud’s functioning is largely based on apps that do not use Core Data for their sync," AgileTortoise developer Greg Pierce told me.
Users cannot be expected to know the difference between synchronizing a self-contained document and synchronizing a database, so developers take heat when their iOS apps and Mac OS X applications experience sync errors.

Make no mistake, synchronizing is hard. You have to take into account many odd possibilities for user behavior. Multiple users updating a shared database (or document, for that matter) make for a nightmarish synchronization problem. Even a single user making conflicting changes to the same database or document on different systems is a real mess. I've been on the periphery of that problem: I know how tough it is.

If you're still not convinced, ask yourself this: why is Larry Ellison so rich? It's not for his charm. Oracle has made and continues to make a very good profit by addressing this problem.

Apple was, I suspect, ill-equipped managerially to support iCloud. I say "managerially" because the blame for such a technical fiasco does not generally rest with the engineers: they aren't miracle workers.

The problem is partly due to the fact that Apple only had four people leading the company’s work on Core Data as of last year, a source close to Apple has told me. The company has simply not expressed any desire to fix Core Data syncing.
Four people. From what I know of the company, that sounds plausible. And that jibes with Apple's long-time disinclination to play in any technology area that requires sustained back-end software support or that involves providing "software as a service".

Apple got plenty of heat for its misbegotten MobileMe service, and before that .Mac, both of which featured less advanced versions of synchronization. The fact that it didn't do significantly better with iCloud suggests that mid-level management didn't learn from the company's past mistakes and didn't adequately respect the problem space. Now, a handful of engineers are paying the price for the company's willful disregard. With Amazon and Microsoft aggressively leading the cloud market and defining robustness against failure as a feature of that market, Apple can't just pretend to incorporate the cloud. It either has to do the technology right, or stop supporting it altogether.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The subjective objective standard

Lately, in the furious debate over gay (or "same-sex") marriage, I've been hearing a trope I hadn't heard before, the "objective standard". Here's Mike Huckabee, for instance, talking about evangelical Christians leaving the GOP if the party drops its hard line on gay marriage:
"And it's not because there's an anti-homosexual mood, and nobody's homophobic that I know of," says Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor, "but many of us, and I consider myself included, base our standards not on the latest Washington Post poll, but on an objective standard, not a subjective standard."
[That link will go stale pretty quickly; sorry.]

Any group of zealots, reactionary or radical, tends to develop a tortured relationship with language. Huckabee's insistence that those who cannot abide gay marriage aren't in "an anti-homosexual mood", for instance, can't easily be justified. In other fora, those who share Huckabee's insistence are reduced either to claiming a love of "thousands of years of tradition" (that is, of traditional marriage) or the familiar "love the sinner, hate the sin" trope that Christians employ in many contexts. It all rings hollow to me, and if I actually cared what people like Huckabee thought and tried to probe their feelings, I suspect they wouldn't like what they found out about themselves any more than I would.

However, let's focus on that claim of "an objective standard".

Objective has a number of senses, but the two that I think convey what Huckabee meant are

having reality independent of the mind
or
expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations
Huckabee is not quoted explaining the source of the objective standard to which he and others subscribe, but in other fora that standard has been identified as the Bible. In other words, Huckabee and likeminded people arrogate to themselves objective morality, disdaining other viewpoints as non-objective — mere opinion rather than wisdom.

Why is their standard truly objective? Clearly, in their minds, it's because the Bible is the (inerrant) word of God.

What about the rest of us, who don't subscribe to their religious beliefs? To them, we're ignorant and our objections are irrelevant.

Let me tell you, Gov. Huckabee, that you can claim your standard is objective, but your claim doesn't mean anything to the rest of us — except that your statement and attitude are outrageously arrogant. You claim absolute correctness not because you have a superior argument, but because of your putatively exclusive knowledge of God's word, not to mention your certainty of God's existence and infallibility. The rest of us, alas for you, don't buy that argument. You are therefore left to claim your righteousness in the same space to which all other absolute moralists are limited: your own mind and heart.

Discussion with you is a waste of time. The rest of us will just have to figure out how to make a better nation and a more civilized society without you and your equally arrogant brethren.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Republican primaries

Reading yet another article about the very public scrambling by various Republican elected officials to find a comfortable place to stand amid various social earthquakes (notably, legalizing same-sex marriage), I was confronted yet again by the conventional wisdom: running for office requires steering hard right in the Republican primaries. This is based on more conventional wisdom, that primaries tend to draw only the most hard-core, far-right voters in the GOP.

It strikes me that the Republican Party might want to consider trying to motivate more than just the hard-core to vote in its primaries. Then maybe that oft-mentioned but not oft-seen bulk of the party might get candidates that don't embarrass it in the general election.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The predatory rich

Class warfare is an ugly term and an uglier idea. It generally is thrown around by those who fear that the many non-rich will storm the barricades and guillotine the rich, as they did during the French Revolution.

Mike Lofgren in The American Conservative last August posited a different scenario:

The objective of the predatory super-rich and their political handmaidens is to discredit and destroy the traditional nation state and auction its resources to themselves. Those super-rich, in turn, aim to create a “tollbooth” economy, whereby more and more of our highways, bridges, libraries, parks, and beaches are possessed by private oligarchs who will extract a toll from the rest of us. Was this the vision of the Founders? Was this why they believed governments were instituted among men—that the very sinews of the state should be possessed by the wealthy in the same manner that kingdoms of the Old World were the personal property of the monarch?
It's hard to argue with the premise that the super-rich, with some honorable exceptions like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, have lost any sense of civic responsibility they might once have had. Lofgren's piece tried to sound the alarm that the self-exile the super-rich sought (and still seek) was fundamentally not in keeping with true conservatism. As he put it: "Conservatives need to think about the world they want: do they really desire a social Darwinist dystopia?"

Unfortunately, the Republican Party, speaking on behalf of conservatives, seems to have answered "yes".

(Thanks to LongReads for the link.)

[UPDATE, 17 Apr 2013: Fixed typo: "Unforunately" --> "Unfortunately"]

"Fear of a Black President", Ta-Nehisi Coates

I guess in a lot of ways, I'm still naive about race in the U.S.

During most of Barack Obama's first term I genuinely believed that the ferocious opposition to his administration and its policies was rooted in determined, if often misguided or uninformed, disagreement with the policies themselves. Yes, birtherism and secret-Muslimism were flatly irrational and signaled something other than well-meant "loyal opposition", but the proponents of these efforts wore their racism, often with disgusting pride, on their sleeves. (Why I excused mainstream pols who insisted on riding these non-issues, I don't know. Wishful thinking?)

I don't know exactly when I changed my mind, but I think that for a lot of 2012 I wondered whether the same policies, put forward by a different president, would have elicited the same response at the same intensity. You can't compare Obama either to Bill Clinton's actual terms or to a might-have-been Hillary Clinton first term because over all of these hung, or would have hung, the spectre of Bill's fiercely polarized time in office. But if John Kerry, say, had been president for the past four years, it's hard to imagine that the partisan rancor would have been quite as hysterical on the right.

I mentioned all that to explain why Ta-Nehisi Coates' piece from last August in The Atlantic, "Fear of a Black President", so impressed me. It's not a solidly factual piece: while Coates cites a couple of studies, it's not clear to me that he proved Obama's very presence in the White House has brought racial discord to bear on every dispute he has had with his opponents. And yet, I can't help feeling Coates is right.

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened [with regard to the Trayvon Martin shooting],” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such.
As Coates observed about the Martin shooting, "The belief that a young man should be able to go to the store for Skittles and an iced tea and not be killed by a neighborhood-watch patroller seemed uncontroversial." And yet, "[t]he moment Obama spoke, the case of Trayvon Martin passed out of its national-mourning phase and lapsed into something darker and more familiar—racialized political fodder."

Coates makes a powerfully emotional case that race still underlies our politics and our culture in a toxic way. Chances are that in our polarized culture, either you've already read Coates' piece and agree with him, or you've never heard of it and after my précis, you have no intention of clicking on the link. If, however, you belong to that increasingly rare species, the uncommitted and non-partisan, you might take a look at the article. Give Coates himself a chance to convince you.

(Thanks to LongReads for the link. Don't blame LongReads, by the way, for my being so abysmally late to this and other pieces.)

Friday, March 8, 2013

Fighting over the scraps

When you consider how corporate profits now dwarf earnings by labor, the current "solutions" to Social Security's and Medicare's coming shortfalls that are being discussed by the pundit class seem remarkably beside the point.

Take, for instance, Thomas Edsall's Opinionator piece in the New York Times a couple of days ago, "The War on Entitlements". If you're of the opinion that "entitlements" is a right-wing dog-whistle code word for "undeserved and redistributed money", the title of his piece alone may antagonize you. But read it and see the options he puts on the table.

Cutting benefits is frequently discussed in the halls of Congress, in research institutes and by analysts and columnists. The idea of subjecting earned income over $113,700 to the Social Security payroll tax and making the Medicare tax more progressive – steps that would affect only the relatively affluent — is largely missing from the policy conversation.

The Washington cognoscenti are more inclined to discuss two main approaches that are far less costly for the affluent: means-testing of benefits and raising the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare.

To the Heritage Foundation's argument that "punitive tax rates" lie in store if "entitlements are not reformed", Edsall counters:
Federal tax revenues in 2009, 2010 and 2011 have been 15.1 percent, 15.1 percent and 15.4 percent of Gross Domestic Product, lower than any level since 1950.
I had to mention this point because it's here that Edsall's arguments, progressive though they are, raised my hackles. Completely absent from his treatment is any mention of the fact that, according to the final chart in Derek Thompson's recent piece in the Atlantic, corporate profits represent more than twice the share of GDP as labor's. Any shortfall in worker benefits clearly cannot and should not be made up by taking a larger share of labor's smaller slice of GDP. Corporate profits, after all, have reached their historically high share of GDP on the backs of workers, who have been squeezed as they haven't been in eighty years.

Edsall and likeminded thinkers are arguing over how to apportion a smaller slice of pie, ignoring the outsized wedge that corporations have tied up. As they say on cop shows, follow the money.

Corporations and the economy

Further to my last entry, consider a piece by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic entitled, "Corporate Profits Are Eating the Economy".

You have got to take a look at the final graph in Thompson's piece, comparing "labor's share of the economy ... to corporate profits' share of the economy". In the late 1940s labor's share was modestly greater; by 1996 corporate profits had drawn even; after a brief resurgence between the late 1990s and roughly 2001, labor's share dropped precipitously while corporate profits went on a tear. After a severe hammering around 2008, corporate profits soared past their previous high in 2005-2006 and are still on an upward trajectory.

The most interesting thing about that last chart, by the way, is not the absolute value of current corporate profits; that number, indeed, is not all that far from its peak value in the late 1940s. The value of labor, on the other hand, has plummeted from its peak around 1970.

Taken together, these graphs don't tell us that corporations have utterly decoupled from the economy. When the economy crashes, we all crash together: corporate profits, employment, and growth. But when the economy recovers, we don't recover together. Corporations rack up historic profits thanks to strong global demand, cheap global labor, and low interest rates, while American workers muddle along, their significance to these companies greatly diminished by a worldwide market for goods and people.
The well-being of corporations, in short, is only weakly tied to the well-being of flesh-and-blood people. So when anybody in Washington or on Wall Street points at corporate profits and tells you that the economy is recovering, it's quite rational to shout "Bullshit!" in reply.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The stock market and the economy

The article's title is, "Record High Close for Dow, Spurred by Fed and Profits". The opening line is:
Despite everything, the stock market is back at a record high.
Despite everything. That's all you need to know.

The stock market, even taking into account that the Dow is not exactly representative of the market as a whole, has rebounded. Why haven't the rest of us felt the improvement? Well, the answer seems inescapably simple: the market is no longer connected to our collective economic well-being, if it ever was.

If you are still laboring under the mistaken impression that the stock market has diddly to do with your economic fate, this should open your eyes.

Dodd-Frank DOA

Matt Taibbi's depressing piece about the virtual gutting of the useful and important reforms in Dodd-Frank is almost a year old, but I doubt anything has gotten better.

Dodd-Frank, in case you had forgotten (or had never heard of it), was meant to prevent another financial services-led meltdown of the economy by reining in the industry's least-regulated and riskiest practices.

At 2,300 pages, the new law ostensibly rewrote the rules for Wall Street. It was going to put an end to predatory lending in the mortgage markets, crack down on hidden fees and penalties in credit contracts, and create a powerful new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to safeguard ordinary consumers. Big banks would be banned from gambling with taxpayer money, and a new set of rules would limit speculators from making the kind of crazy-ass bets that cause wild spikes in the price of food and energy. There would be no more AIGs, and the world would never again face a financial apocalypse when a bank like Lehman Brothers went bankrupt.

Most importantly, even if any of that fiendish crap ever did happen again, Dodd-Frank guaranteed we wouldn't be expected to pay for it. "The American people will never again be asked to foot the bill for Wall Street's mistakes," Obama promised. "There will be no more taxpayer-funded bailouts. Period."

What was the state of Dodd-Frank in 2012?
Two years later, Dodd-Frank is groaning on its deathbed. The giant reform bill turned out to be like the fish reeled in by Hemingway's Old Man – no sooner caught than set upon by sharks that strip it to nothing long before it ever reaches the shore.
It would be good medicine to read the entire piece, if only to understand just how fucked we average folks are when it comes to facing down Wall Street, but if you understandably can't stomach the idea of absorbing all the gory details when you already know there isn't a happy ending, here's Taibbi's takeaway:
You can't buy votes in a democracy, at least not directly, but our democracy is run through a bureaucracy. Human beings can cast a vote, or rally together during protests and elections, but real people – even committed professionals – get tired of running through mazes of motions and countermotions, or reading thousands of pages about swaps-execution facilities and NRSROs. They will fight through it for five days, or maybe even six, but on the seventh they will watch a baseball game, or Tanked, instead of diving into that morass of hellish acronyms one more time.

But money never gets tired. It never gets frustrated. And it thinks that drilling holes in Dodd-Frank is every bit as interesting as The Book of Mormon or Kate Upton naked. The system has become too complex for flesh-and-blood people, who make the mistake of thinking that passing a new law means the end of the discussion, when it's really just the beginning of a war.

(Thanks to LongReads for the link.)

Sensible Republican answers to our debt

Sheila C. Bair, formerly chairwoman of the FDIC, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times entitled "Grand Old Parity" a little over a week ago. To my surprise, I found myself nodding in agreement with most of it. She advocates doing away with preferential treatment of investment income, for instance, with this remarkable insight:
Defenders of this giveaway make the unsubstantiated claim that it encourages job-creating investments. But what we have now is merely an immense pool of investment funds that has created far too few jobs. A report last year by Bain and Co. projected that by 2020 there will be $900 trillion in financial assets around the globe, chasing investments in a real economy worth only $90 trillion in gross domestic product. Why in heaven’s name do we need to keep a tax preference to encourage more?
She also urges spending on infrastructure to create jobs and to lay the groundwork for increased commerce. While I don't know if she and I would agree on the details of such a proposal (anything that tends to entrench fossil fuels further in our economy is not a wise investment, in my opinion), it's refreshing that someone who calls herself a Republican recognizes, and acknowledges in public, that there is a role for such spending at all. It's a sharp contrast to the mindless bleating for "cuts, cuts, cuts" coming from the party's Norquist-besotted majority.

Bair's piece exemplifies what a responsible Republican opposition should be putting forward as policy proposals. Yes, we need to rein in the debt, but for pity's sake, we need to do so in a way that won't tank our currently fragile economy. It's not just about getting a Republican into the White House in 2016: you have a moral, if not (alas) legal, responsibility to govern responsibly! Start acting like thinking, reasonable adults, and some of us will take a good hard look at what you have to offer!

An innocent man executed by the state

In October 2011 I declared that, after a lifetime of indifference, I had come to oppose the death penalty. After discussing a couple of the justifications for this ultimate punishment, and concluding that they weren't as "just" as they first appeared, I concluded:
... call me a softie if you will, but I am one of those who believes it's better to let a dozen guilty men go free than to take one innocent man's life.
I've been catching up on LongReads recently, and I just encountered this harrowing story in the UK's Guardian about the execution of an innocent man, Carlos DeLuna, in Texas in 1989. The article describes a litany of incompetence and neglect by law enforcement; the extent of their failure, I would say, rises to the level of gross misconduct.

Worst of all, there's no way to know if this grotesque travesty of justice is an anomaly, or the norm. As the professor who led the investigation into DeLuna's case — years after his execution — remarked:

"This wasn't the trial of OJ Simpson. It was an obscure case, the kind that could involve anybody. Maybe those are the cases where miscarriages of justice happen, the routine everyday cases where nobody thinks enough about the victim, let alone the defendant."
If you want a textbook case of why the death penalty is an unacceptable punishment, this is it. Even better, the book on the subject isn't a textbook.

If you're a death-penalty supporter and a Texas resident, you helped create the system that killed Carlos DeLuna. You therefore have some of his blood on your hands (blackly ironic, really, considering that DeLuna had none of the victim's blood on his). You are complicit in his murder at the hands of the state.

How do you sleep at night?

If somebody harmed someone I loved, I would probably want to kill the perpetrator. I get that everyone can be driven to want that kind of vengeance. But damn it, a civilized society cannot indulge that kind of bloodlust. A civilized society recognizes that even with the most exacting requirements, mistakes happen in the administration of justice. A civilized society does not act in a way that only an infallible being could justify.

A civilized society has no damned business taking an innocent life.

Ever.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The absence of heart

In an article entitled "Refusing to Be Late on Gay Marriage" by James B. Stewart in the New York Times, the surprising eagerness of so many large companies to file amicus briefs supporting gay marriage is explored. Various interviewees cite both the changing tenor of the times, and the business interests that are adversely affected by the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), including "tax and benefits issues, administrative costs, employee morale and the ability to attract gay employees and to move them to locations where gay marriage is prohibited".

This is all striking stuff, and as some in the article noted, it's hard to imagine that so much support could have been amassed even five years ago.

Nevertheless, there's still resistance. And that resistance is contemptuous of the buy-in by big business.

The conservative Family Research Council, which filed a brief opposing gay marriage, blamed “a corporate environment dictated by wealthy, pro-homosexual activists” for the growing corporate support of same-sex marriage and added, “We applaud Exxon Mobil for refusing to cede the moral high ground to the special interests of the left.” A spokesman for the council told me he thought that the business issues cited in the briefs were “trivial” and that companies signing the briefs were “motivated by political correctness, pure and simple.”
[Last year ExxonMobil's shareholders, the article notes, "overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to extend employee benefits to same-sex partners".]

"Pro-homosexual activists" — it never occurs to retrograde outfits like the FRC that people with whom they disagree might not be part of a conspiracy to gayify the world. And that bit about "the special interests of the left" — heaven forbid that people who are being treated like dirt by the likes of the FRC should protest and seek equality under the law. Motivation by "political correctness" — again, it never occurs to the FRC that people could be motivated by a sense of justice and fairness. In any case, companies like Apple hardly seem to be in need of the juicing such political correctness would seem calculated to bring to their bottom lines.

What must it be like to be, as the members of the FRC and other groups defending DOMA and California's Proposition 8 are, bereft of heart?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Rodman in North Korea

I saw the headlines about Dennis Rodman in North Korea but couldn't be bothered to read more — until I caught the astonishing footage of Rodman lionizing not only current strongman Kim Jong-un, but his father and grandfather, too. I hate linking to videos; fortunately, I don't have to in this case. According to the account in the Washington Post:
At Pyongyang’s Sunan airport on his way to Beijing, Rodman said it was “amazing” that the North Koreans were “so honest.” He added that Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder, “were great leaders.”

“He’s proud, his country likes him — not like him, love him, love him,” Rodman said of Kim Jong Un. “Guess what, I love him. The guy’s really awesome.”

I don't know anything about Rodman except that he wore a dress in public on at least one occasion. I have no special beef with cross-dressers, or for that matter with publicity hounds as such; which one Rodman is, I couldn't say and don't care. I do object to morons, though, and with his grotesquely effusive praise for the Kim clan Rodman has shown himself to be one of the biggest morons on the planet.

What the hell was going through his insufficiently embrained skull? By embracing one of the world's least respectable regimes, was he cynically counting on our collective outrage to keep the buzz about him going for longer than it otherwise would — in other words, was his outrageous behavior a publicity stunt? Was he — is he — could he be — could anyone be — so abysmally ill-informed not to know just how deservedly reviled North Korea's leadership is?

Is he prepared to lavish praise on anybody who wines and dines him well enough, whatever the other person's character and behavior outside his presence? Is he, in other words, just an easy lay?

Or is he going to return to the U.S. and shout, "Psych!!! Fooled you all, didn't I?"

I'm not counting on his being that great an actor. Even if he is, he'll have to have one hell of an excuse for giving North Korea such uplifiting visuals over the last couple of days.

I have gotten the impression that his stop in North Korea was part of a promotional junket for some TV project. Assuming Rodman wasn't pulling a Jedi mind trick on us all (Kim Jong-un included), let's do ourselves and the world a favor by ignoring the show and Rodman. Let his show tank as no show has ever tanked before. Let Rodman become a pariah in the entertainment business. Hell, let him become a pariah, period. The sooner he disappears from public view, the better for everyone.