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Newsletter Issue #596

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

In the next article, I’m covering the topic of “non-stories,” and certainly that recent controversy over whether Apple has become the Big Brother that’s tracking your every movement, well at least when you have your iPhone at hand, really dominated even the mainstream media for a few days. It’s not that they had nothing else to write about. In addition to covering the unexpected release of President Obama’s “long form” birth certificate, there remain such important matters as spiking oil prices, natural disasters in the U.S. southeast, war in the Middle East, and so forth and so on. How can what Apple knows about you top that?

Well, that didn’t stop the media from going after them with a vengeance, not to mention government officials looking for headlines, and people hoping to receive an unearned payday in the courts. Once a conspiracy theory is developed about a large, multinational corporation, it’s not hard to keep it going.

Well, we covered the subject in detail this week on The Tech Night Owl LIVE. Although Apple ultimately responded in what I regard as a totally satisfactory fashion to the growing controversy, there’s still a lot that isn’t fully understood about the situation.

To explain what’s really happening, we invited cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, from Roughly Drafted Magazine and AppleInsider, and Dan Moren, Senior Editor for Macworld, to discuss the subject.

You also heard a special Apple Inc. update from Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus, who explained the trials and tribulations of writing best-selling books about iPhones, iPads and, of course, the latest and greatest Mac OS.

On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present long-time paranormal investigator Joshua P. Warren, author of “Poor Man’s Paranormal: A Manual on Using Household Items to Document Ghosts, UFOs, Cryptids & Psychic Activity Right Now.” You’ll discover how to explore the strange and unknown without buying budget-busting gear.

Coming May 8: Gene and Chris attempt to explore what the U.S. Presidents and other government officials knew and didn’t know about UFOs and their possible reality with Grant Cameron, who presents his evidence on The Presidents UFO Website.

Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt. We’re taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.

WELCOME TO THE WILD WORLD OF NON-STORIES

I used to collect radios, lots of them. Maybe that’s why I got into broadcasting in the first place, since I could actually be heard on one of those contraptions. Indeed, during my long-ago teen-aged years, I built a few, ranging from simple models with a few spare parts, to full-blown multichannel receivers. Unless I’m totally wrong, one of my close friends of that era is actually using the FM radio tuner I assembled for him with a screwdriver and soldering iron.

One lesson I learned then is that radio reception is unreliable, and can vary all over the place. Even FM, which can deliver nearly pristine sound under ideal conditions, may present difficulties, as most of you know. If you move the radio or antenna around, reception will improve. I also discovered, early on, that my hands would become part of the circuit, and then the quality of the signal would depend on their proximity.

The most frustrating lesson was learned before I got cable TV, when I used an regular antenna to pick up local stations. Consider the time, years ago, when I lived in a small apartment, and had a rabbit ears antenna affixed to the family TV; the rental office wouldn’t permit an external antenna, and I didn’t want to invest in cable. Well, it was frustrating to carefully point the two ends of the antenna in the right direction, only to have the picture get snowy again as soon as I moved my hands away.

Now, from a purely scientific standpoint, there should be no mystery whatever why this occurs, and how your hands, essentially two large sacks of liquid, can hurt or enhance reception. Certainly cell phone makers know this. Some tell you in the manual not to hold a handset the “wrong” way, and a few models even have warning stickers affixed to the sensitive location. Nobody seemed to care, until the iPhone 4 arrived in 2010.

Someone, doesn’t matter who, discovered that if you held Apple’s hot-selling smartphone in a fashion that covered the sensitive region, you’d get fewer bars. This should not have been so big a deal since, as I said, any mobile handset is susceptible to the same symptoms. But Apple dared to use external antennas, and made a big deal about improved sensitivity, so they had to be brought down to size.

Now, if you have a conspiratorial bent, you might want to believe that the whole “Death Grip” controversy was actually manufactured by a competitor, and that it wasn’t accidentally discovered by someone. After all, on a unit to unit basis, sales of iPhones are off the charts, and Apple is rolling in cash as a result. Sure maybe there are more Android OS handsets out there, but they come in many models from different companies. It’s about one against many. Worse, Android is not just a single look and feel for a mobile device. There is very little Android branding to be found. Individual makers will put their own individual stamp on the user interface, not to mention bundled software, so you can’t even be assured that your Android phone works exactly the same as someone else’s. I haven’t even begun to mention how wireless carriers tamper with the products even further, swapping out default search apps and other stuff.

At least you know that a Windows Phone 7 device from one company is essentially the same as another, just as a RIM BlackBerry smartphone, at least until they change the operating system. Certainly consistency has been a hallmark of a Mac OS or iOS product for years.

In any case, in response to the uproar, Apple demonstrated that other smartphones have death grips of their own. Competitors protested, then shut up, particularly as more and more YouTube videos proved that they reside in glass houses too. Only the confused reviewers at Consumer Reports seem to feel it’s just Apple’s problem to fix, despite all the independent evidence that they are wrong. So when CR wouldn’t even recommend the Verizon iPhone 4, the mainstream media just ran with the story without actually doing real journalism, meaning asking hard questions and doing research to verify the claims.

The latest non-story is whether Apple is somehow tracking your movements in order to invade your privacy. Now I have to wonder what you expect is going to happen when you turn on an iPhone’s Location feature, and click “Allow” for each and every app that wants to know where you happen to be. You would, I presume, expect that there would be a tracking file on the phone that records at least some of this information. Sharing it with Apple’s online database would also seem a given; it improves the efficiency of the service.

The only real problem is that an apparent bug in the iOS keeps the cache file intact even when Location is switched off. The whole apparatus, linking the cloud, local wireless access points, and individual handsets, has to be immensely complex. So they made a mistake. At worst, if someone actually got ahold of your iPhone, or your backup file on your Mac or PC, they might know roughly where that gadget has traveled, period, within the range of the nearest network. They wouldn’t know what you did in those locales.

But you certainly have the right not to have your movements tracked, so I look forward to Apple’s fix. And maybe it’s time to begin asking serious privacy questions of Google, and, in fact any company that builds gear that requires knowledge of your whereabouts beyond what’s expected so that police and rescue workers can find you in the event of some sort of calamity. Then, of course, you want them to find you, right?

In any case, I’m sure there will be lots more non-stories out there about Apple. That’s the price for being the number one tech company on the planet, and not being shy about it.

A WINDOWS KEYBOARD INDEED

Once upon a time, Logitech built some compelling keyboards that worked on both a Mac and a PC; some were Mac only, but evidently enough of you didn’t buy them, so they aren’t available anymore. These days, Logitech lists only three, designed for games, described as “Mac compatible.”

Now as most of you realize, almost all the keys on a computer keyboard are functionally the same whether they are used on a Mac or Windows PC. The most significant difference is the Windows key, which appears where your Alt (or Option) key shows up on a Mac. In theory, you should be able to use Mac OS X’s Keyboard preference panel to remap the modifier keys, so Command actually delivers the proper function, and the Windows key provides the Option function.

Are you with me so far?

So long as you don’t mind the labeling on your Windows keyboard, these simple changes ought to deliver the proper result. Or at least that’s the theory. Unfortunately, Logitech has, for some reason, designed their Wireless Illuminated Keyboard K800 to ignore Apple’s key remapping feature. Or at least I couldn’t get it to work when I tried one of these keyboards recently.

Now maybe it was a design defect, or something in Logitech’s input device software on my Mac, which only partly recognized the existence of that keyboard. Regardless, it makes little sense to go through the time and expense of designing one of those things, and not do the tiny bit of extra work required to make it work on a Mac.

Sure, maybe Mac sales are still relatively small compared to Windows, but Apple’s market is growing ahead of most PC makers by a large margin. Besides, how much of an engineering feat is it to allow keys to be remapped, or maybe label the keycaps so they look right on either platform?

Yes, I realize there are third-party utilities, such as DoubleCommand, designed to conveniently handle this theoretically simple chore. I might even given it a try and see if it fares better than Apple’s own settings.

To make matters worse, I’m actually a Logitech fan. I use one of their Harmony universal remotes for my television set and connected gear. Apple’s Magic Mouse gives me wrist aches, so there’s always a Logitech MX-family mouse around to provide appropriate comfort. Logitech’s Control Center software seems to get regular updates, and compatibility with Mac OS X seems decent enough.

So why is Logitech pretending that Mac users can or should stick with their aluminum keyboards from Apple? Well, maybe we can. But Apple’s short-travel keys, designed to mimic the feel of the keyboard on a Mac portable, aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Some of the better alternatives include the comfortable, if noisy, Matias Tactile Pro 3 which, at $149.95, is pricey but first class when it comes to the classic Mac keyboard feel. Rather than use membrane-based key switches, which are cheap, Edgar Matias and his crew use old fashioned mechanical switches, which promise much longer life. Now if he could only make them quieter.

In any case, Logitech has some nice keyboards too — or did. Their emphasis on the Windows-only world is unfortunate. Sure, you can probably work around that limitation with an extra utility, but it seems a kluge. Logitech owes Mac users more than a passing glance.

THE FINAL WORD

The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
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