Behind the Wheel: 2014 Audi A4 Wagon (Diesel)

Audi A4 WagonEarlier this year I found myself over in Florence, Italy, with family and I needed to rent a car to go for a day trip. Although I normally don’t splurge on rental cars, in this case we decided to go for a “luxury” rental – both as a slight treat to ourselves, and because we didn’t want to be crammed into an itty-bitty little car.

So, what should pull up in front of the rental place but a 2014 Audi A4 wagon… with a diesel engine, no less!

Right off the bat this car surprised me – the diesel was excellent – smooth and quiet, to the point where at first I didn’t realize it was a diesel! Highway driving was easy, but uninspiring. Plenty of power on tap from the diesel engine, but it isn’t overwhelming – or exciting. That said, it’s got more than enough “oomph” for near effortless passing at speed. City driving was also surprisingly nimble, though in Italy – and especially in the narrow streets of Florence – the A4 was almost too big.

The interior was a very comfortable place to be – and it carried 4 adults on a long road trip up to the Chianti region with no fuss at all. I can definitely understand why people like this sort of car as a daily driver – it’s comfortable, the in-dash navigation is great, and it has plenty of room inside.

On the other hand, it’s not exactly what you’d call a “driver’s car.” Although there was plenty of power from the diesel, there wasn’t exactly an abundance of it, either. Everything about how it drives was smooth, gentle, and reassuring – not in the least bit exciting.

All in all, not a bad car by any means, and one I’d happily drive again as a rental, but not one I’d want to own.

Windows 8.1 is Here – Is it any Better?

Windows 8.1Windows 8.1 was released yesterday, and it’s available as a free update for anyone who already has Windows 8. So, naturally, as soon as it became available, I took the plunge and installed it.

Windows 8.1 is kind of a strange mix of “service pack” and “new operating system,” but the really big question is – is it any better than Windows 8 was? Does it improve on the shortcomings I pointed out in my previous reviews?

Read on to find out!

Installing

windows store tileGetting the update was actually a bit confusing. It’s not a Windows update, and doesn’t appear as part of your standard updates – instead, you have to launch the “Store” app and hope that the offer to upgrade appears (I’m not sure what triggers it, as it didn’t appear at first for me).

The installation is fairly straightforward, although it does take a while – even longer than installing a Windows Service Pack used to take.

Still, there were no hiccups and eventually after a few reboots I was back at my desktop. Not a bad start to things! And speaking of “Start…”

Start Is Back, All Right!

start button is back in Windows 8.1

We missed you!

The Start button is back – as it should have been all along.

While I understand the reasons behind using the corners as “hot spots” for both mouse and touch gestures, when introducing a new user interface element like this, you need to give some sort of visual cue to… um… cue users into the fact that there is something there that can be interacted with.

The Start Screen, Take Two

The ability to have your desktop show through the Start screen is a very small change, but it goes a long way towards making it feel more “cohesive.” No longer is the Start screen this weird world of squares & rectangles, with no connection to your desktop – instead, it’s just an overlay of icons you can click on, just like the old Start menu was (but bigger).

Windows 8.1′s Start screen also now uses different colors for tiles – and not just Metro app tiles, either. All your application tiles now have individual colors, which usually (but not always) match the color of the icon.

windows 8.1 - start screen colors

Instead of being mainly a single color for non-Metro apps, your Start menu is now a real rainbow of colors.

All these colors certainly make the Start screen a bit more visually distinct, but it also makes it look a bit busy. Still, it’s a nice touch to help identify the program you’re looking for at a glance, since the color helps with recognizing an icon before you even read the text.

The ability to go to the “All Apps” view by just clicking a single chevron at the bottom of the Start screen is a welcome addition – especially since Windows 8.1 doesn’t automatically dump newly installed program icons on the Start screen like before. Now you can quickly bring up your “All Apps” (the equivalent to “All Programs” in pre-Windows 8 speak) and find your programs (relatively) easily.

Windows 8.1 Start menu - all apps

Much better!

Windows 8.1 also adds some new sizes for icon tiles – instead of “square” and “rectangle,” you now have “tiny square” and “even bigger rectangle.” Not a big deal, but it’s helpful to keep your Start screen organized if you have lots of icons – though only Metro apps can use the “even bigger” tile sizes.

Windows 8.1 Start menu - different tile sizes

Little icons, big icons, all sizes of icons!

Modern Metro Madness

One small but nice change in Windows 8.1 is that Metro apps can now be split-screened in any proportion – you’re no longer limited to the 1/3 and 2/3 split from Windows 8.

If you have multiple monitors, you can also run Metro apps separately on each one – though I can’t really imagine many people doing this.

(Also, what should we be calling these apps now? They were originally code-named “Metro,” then they became “Windows 8 Modern.” Are they now “Windows 8.1 Modern?” Seriously, they need a better name!)

Search the World

I never understood why Microsoft chose to make search in Windows 8 segmented – it just made no sense to me at all. Previously, searching from the Start menu searched both your Start menu and all of your indexed locations (by default, your libraries) – which is exactly what it should do. Simple, search once and find what you need, no matter where it might be.

But in Windows 8, you had to choose where you were searching – were you searching apps? Or were you searching settings? Or files? And it got worse when you realized that some things (e.g., system settings) were not under “settings,” but actually “apps,” depending on their specific implementation. It was maddening and just made no sense.

windows 8.1 - search everywhereFortunately, Windows 8.1 undoes this terrible design decision, and by default the search now searches “everything” again. (That is, it searches all your apps and all your libraries.)

On the other hand, Windows 8.1 does by default include integration with Bing for search results – but this is easy enough to turn off if you don’t want to search the Internet every time you try to search your computer.

Boot to the Head – er, Desktop

Yep, that’s right – you can now have Windows 8.1 boot directly to the desktop, instead of the Start screen. This option isn’t on by default, but it’s available – and again, something that really should have been there all along.

windows 8.1 - new start screen options

Some welcome new options

Is That It?

Yep, pretty much. Windows 8.1 brings a number of welcome changes – though some of these are less “changes” and more “putting things back the way they were” – but at the end of the day it’s a very minor update – just as it’s name would suggest.

The Bad Stuff

Although the installation itself went very smoothly, there were a few hiccups with my upgrade.

I did have to re-install a few programs because they ran as “services” in Windows, and for whatever reason the update had lost or removed the services. I also had to re-install my display driver – Windows defaulted back to the Microsoft provided driver, which works fine, but doesn’t have some features I like and need.

I also had to re-install my printer/scanner software, as it lost the ability to “Scan to” my computer (even though it still printed just fine) – although honestly this is probably more the fault of the printer manufacturer’s often finicky software.

Windows 8.1 also takes the odd stance of removing links for Libraries from the left-hand navigation pane of Windows Explorer window – though thankfully there is an easy option to bring this back.

Also, somehow my Windows theme had gotten changed so that the text in title bars and the task bar was black instead of white – and it’s not at all easy to figure out how to change this back.

Still, all things considered the problems with this upgrade were fairly minor – none of my devices malfunctioned (and I do have quite a few USB devices hanging off my computer) and all my settings were retained. Having to re-install a few programs, although slightly annoying, was not really that bad.

Windows 8.1 Final Thoughts

All-in-all, Windows 8.1 is still very “meh,” just like Windows 8 was – just slightly less so. Not exactly something I’d get excited about, but it is an improvement – albeit a small one.

The “Metro” side of things (or whatever Microsoft is calling it now) remains just as useless as before – although to be fair, there are more apps now and the built-in ones have improved a fair bit. For anyone using Windows on a tablet device, I’m sure these will be welcome improvements, but for the majority of people I’d imagine they will continue to be mostly ignored.

There are also some other changes I didn’t really go over, but to me they are just so minor as to be irrelevant.

If you already have Windows 8, upgrading to Windows 8.1 is almost no-brainer, as most of the changes are definite improvements over Windows 8, despite the few glitches you might encounter along the way.

If, on the other hand, you’re upgrading from Windows 7 or purchasing a new computer, I would definitely say that you want Windows 8.1 over Windows 8 – mainly for the Start button and Start screen improvements.

We’re Not Ready to be a Surveillance State

1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual for a surveillance stateRecent news has revealed what many already suspected – that we are (or are about to become), a de-facto surveillance state. The problem is: we are not at all ready to be a surveillance state.

The kind of surveillance that was previously only in the realm of dystopian fiction has been revealed to not only be possible, but to be taking place right under our very noses, without our knowledge, our consent, or what we would consider proper oversight.

The thing is, we’ve been headed in this direction for a long time – companies have effectively been doing this for years now. What’s changed is the scope of the  surveillance, and the government’s involvement in (and use of) that surveillance.

This sort of surveillance is a by-product of the digital age we live in, and is not, by itself, a bad thing. What is bad is that government is getting deeply involved, and it is doing so very quickly, and without a chance for public debate (or even without the public’s knowledge!).

In light of the seeming inevitability of increased surveillance and data collection, and to prevent the absolutely certain slide into despotism and a de-facto police state, you need deep, fundamental protections against misuse of data – and such protections need to be built in, from the start – they are not the sort of thing that can be added on afterwards.

Technology is progressing so rapidly that our laws simply cannot keep up – even the ways we create laws is still largely stuck in the last century, so that even if we try to adapt to new technology, by the time we’re done, it’s too late.

Even more worrying is that even though our laws can’t keep up with technology, that’s not stopping our governments from taking advantage of that technology – and that creates a huge problem.

In a way this is like having a really old machine that we’re trying desperately to keep running, even though the manufacturer has long since gone out of business, and the purpose for which the machine was originally built no longer exists. Instead, we keep replacing parts as they break or wear out – which takes longer and longer, since we have to rebuild them from scratch (since no one makes them anymore). We keep trying to get the machine to do things it was never intended to do – bolting on additions and making adjustments, all without really knowing how it will affect the overall functioning of the machine, or even if it’ll work the way we want it to.

Programmers in the audience will recognize this pathological pattern of behavior – any large software system will often find itself in this very same situation. And when faced with this kind of situation, often the response will be to just throw it all out and start over again from scratch.

In law, as in software, the argument against doing this is usually “why throw it away, since it still works” or “why fix what isn’t broken?” But I think it’s clear, especially in the face of new technology and what we’ve learned recently is being done with that technology, that things are in fact NOT working, and that the system IS broken.

doubleplusungood (1984)We either need to start over, or more practically, immediately begin reforming the ways we deal with technology – from the ground up. The pace at which we adapt needs to keep up with the pace at which technology changes – the way we debate laws, the way we vote, the protections & systems needed to prevent abuse – all of these things need to be updated, and they need to be updated in a hurry.

Until our laws are fundamentally overhauled to provide the same kind of deeply embedded protections in this digital age that we previously enjoyed before computers existed, we simply are not ready to be a surveillance state.

That such a surveillance state is being created, before we are ready for it, is deeply disturbing and either needs to be stopped right now, or a concerted effort to reform our laws needs to happen, yesterday.

Why Corporate Participation in Politics is Bad, Bad, Bad

I’ve talked before about why corporations are evil (or rather, why they tend to behave that way). But there’s something else I want to talk about which is related to that – and that’s corporate participation in politics.

Let’s back up a bit first though and go over what exactly is a corporation?

A corporation is a sort of legal fiction, an “entity” that exists only on paper, created and sustained only by the laws that allow its existence, and designed to shield people from loss and liability so as to give them a way to do things they wouldn’t be able to (or wouldn’t want to risk doing) otherwise.

In order for this to work, corporations have to be able to do some of the things ordinary people do – borrow money, have credit, enter contracts, etc.

But lately, corporations have started to be able to do things that aren’t strictly necessary for corporations to exist – specifically, they can now participate in politics in ways that they weren’t allowed to before.

Now, corporations can’t vote in elections – thankfully things haven’t gotten that out of hand yet – but it’s getting close, because of the way corporations are now allowed to influence (i.e., give money to) politicians & political campaigns.

This isn’t, by itself, a bad thing. People band together for political reasons all the time, and they can gather money and contribute to campaigns & such – this is nothing new.

What’s new is that corporations are allowed to do this, on their own behalf.

The problem with this is that corporations are inherently immoral.

Remember – corporations are not people, even though we sometimes think of them as being like people. They exist to shield people from risk, and to make a profit. Corporations do not exist to be nice, or act in a moral manner.

Let me say that again: corporations do NOT exist to be moral, or be nice, or obey laws. While all (or some) of those things may be done by some corporations (especially when they are small), they are NOT the purpose of the corporation, and they can all be subverted to greater or lesser degrees in pursuit of the primary purpose, which is PROFIT.

This is true even if the people running the corporation are the nicest people, and the shareholders are all nice, ordinary people themselves – all of this is stripped away by the structure of a corporation, by its very nature.

Everything a corporation does is measured against a single metric: profit. Even adherence to laws is considered only insomuch as how much that disobedience would cost (literally), or how those individuals in the corporation would be punished directly by disobedience.

Now, don’t get me wrong here – I’m NOT saying that corporations are themselves a bad idea, or that these attributes of corporations make them terrible. There are problems with them, sure, but they have served us well over the years with various tweaks here and there, and I’m sure they will continue to do so in the future.

The problem here can be summed up like this:

  1. Corporations are inherently immoral.
  2. Corporations can now participate directly in politics.
  3. Because corporations are inherently immoral, their influence in politics will also be immoral.

Politics is a nasty enough business on its own, but now it is going to be much, much worse – which is why letting corporations participate in politics (a la the Citizens United decision) is such a bad, bad, bad idea.

This is akin to suddenly having large, sentient, carnivorous dinosaurs appear, and then giving them an almost equal vote in our political processes, and wondering why very soon it’s legal for people to be eaten by dinosaurs at any time, or have their homes stomped on, etc.

When corporations can participate in politics and government, the natural evolution will be for corporations to gain more and more influence, behaving like parasites, until eventually they merge with government itself, and you can no longer tell where one ends and the other begins.

Corporate participation in politics is, frankly, wrong, and it runs contrary to all the ideas of democracy that underpin so much of our society. If we are to continue to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people – and not a government “for the corporations” – then corporate participation in politics must not be allowed.

Florida Activates System for Citizens to Call Each Other Terrorists

Florida Activates System for Citizens to Call Each Other Terrorists

Or, in other words, a very, very, very bad idea… but sadly not the first time we’ve seen something just like this.

There’s the “if you see something, say something” campaign that you see plastered all over the place in the greater NYC metro area (and probably elsewhere), as well as the “anti-terrorist hotline” in the UK – among many other examples.

uk anti-terrorist hotline billboardThe problem with systems like this is that they’re often very poorly thought out and ripe for abuse. Really, these systems are just ways for people to snitch on one another for vague and ill-defined reasons.

A system like this can only work if:

  •  People are capable of making reliable judgements on risk (they aren’t)
  •  People can be trusted to only make objective reports (they can’t)
  •  Few people will abuse the system for personal gain (they won’t)

People being people, you will see people reporting others that they don’t like, or trying to submit false reports to harass others – especially if the system is anonymous. Anonymous tips from the public are fine, but if you treat every anonymous tip as legitimate (and with terrorism tips like this, you almost have to, or else what’s the point) you are quickly going to find yourself chasing a LOT of dead ends, wasting time and effort, and just generally getting drowned in the noise of the system.

And if the system isn’t anonymous, what sort of review process is there? Where does this fit in the context of judicial review? What sort of penalties are their for false statements? If the penalties are too low, then the system is ripe for abuse just like if it was anonymous. If the penalties are too high, then people won’t use it for fear of making a mistake – thus nullifying the entire point of the whole thing (and easy way to report “suspicious” activity).

Even if somehow a middle ground is found for this system… where do these reports go? How long are they stored? Can you submit a plausible (but false) report about someone you don’t like, and then have that person get subtly harassed for years afterwards (getting “extended” pat downs whenever they travel, finding themselves on black lists, the subject of needless surveillance, etc.).

Finally, can  you trust the public to really know what “suspicious activity” is? The answer is, resoundingly, “no.” Unless the would-be perpetrator is being astoundingly obvious about his/her intentions, the likelihood of anything they do seeming “suspicious” is practically nil. And of course, there are far more ordinary and innocent things that people do all the time that might (incorrectly) appear suspicious if you don’t know the whole story (or are already in a paranoid mindset).

When you consider all of these problems – and these are all legitimate, real problems with a system like this – you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it. Is the thing you’re trying to prevent (terrorism) worth all the mistakes and harassment and wasted time, effort, and money? Because terrorism is, realistically, a rare thing – despite what some people would like you to believe – and it’s unclear whether it’s worthwhile to try and prevent these rare events, when it’s unproven whether such methods would even have an effect at all!

If terrorism were something mundane, like say, tooth decay, we’d NEVER even consider measures like this – you’d be a laughing stock if you even suggested such an insane idea. Even if it were something equally (or even more) deadly, but less emotionally charged, like say, wearing seat belts or motorcycle helmets (all of which are the cause of far more death & pain & suffering than terrorism is), there would still be heavy political and civil opposition to such a heavy-handed approach, not to mention lots of arguments about all the money it would cost.

I know it’s hard to do, but it really is very important to take the “emotional” aspect out of the question when you’re dealing with policies like this – because it just skews things so far into the realm of the unreal that it’s not even funny… and in many ways, it’s quite dangerous, especially to those principles we hold dear.