What happened to “think different”?

I long ago pushed beyond the threshold of “curmudgeon.” This is not entirely my doing, though approaching 70 accounts for something. I have not been “hip” for years. Nor, really, do I have any desire to be an enthusiastic passenger on the Zeitgeist. I do not get excited about “new and improved.” I prefer that things just work.

I’ll pick on Apple for this occasion, though any number of companies would suffice.

Apple, we will recall, made much about “think different,” offering us images of iconoclastic cultural heroes, from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi, to Einstein and, well, Steve Jobs himself. The marketing, always impeccable, would have us believe that buying Apple’s products was an act of self-expression, setting us apart from the ordinary.

And Apple also proclaimed that its products “just work,” unlike the competition’s offerings, which were often a confusing bundle of components from dozens of vendors. Consumers of those products spent many a frustrating hour trying to get devices to “talk with one another.”

But it is in the nature of technology that nothing shall remain the same. There are constant revisions of software, design, and features. Any self-respecting consumer with means must have these, even if what they replace works perfectly fine.

Early on in its journey, Apple embraced music. It was said to be in the company’s “DNA.” The iPod made this so, allowing customers to listen to their music “on the go.” Over the years, especially after the introduction of the iPhone (which combined an iPod with a phone with mobile access to the Internet), Apple expanded its presence in music. Now Apple offers millions of “songs” with iTunes and Apple Music.

Here is where the curmudgeon truly shines, though not in a good way. Apple now tells me what is “trending.” But curmudgeons don’t give a shit about trends, especially music. A trend, is seems to me, is merely an aggregation of consumer preferences and any given time. There is near-zero chance that I will be interested in any one or any thing that is “tending.” Yet, when I open Apple Music, I presented with lists of trends.

Come on, Apple. “Think different” is the antithesis of “trend.” Sorry, Ghandi. Sorry, Einstein. Give way to Taylor Swift and Tech N9ne and J. Cole, the names that appear right now under Apple’s “new music.”

There. I feel a bit better.

Tax evasion

The European Commission ruled that Apple owes Ireland over $14 billion in taxes the company avoided through a sweetheart deal with the country. Apple’s Tim Cook called the ruling “maddening,” vowing to appeal. Ironically, the Irish government announced that it would also challenge the judgment.

Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the 21st Century, advocates for a “global wealth” tax to reduce or eliminate country-hopping by international corporations bent on reducing their tax liabilities. Perhaps the EC’s ruling can serve as a first step in accomplishing Piketty’s proposal.

Now comes Senator Elizabeth Warren in a New York Times op-ed. She writes:

For years, corporate tax dodgers have taken full advantage of all the benefits of being American companies, while searching out every possible way to avoid paying American taxes. Now that other leading countries are starting to get tough on tax enforcement, these tax dodgers suddenly want to move their money back to the United States. When they do, they should pay their fair share, just as working families and small businesses have been all along.

Countries, especially the United States, need a lot more money to repair and build public infrastructure and “promote the general welfare.” Over the years, corporations have used their considerable financial muscle to whittle down their tax rates. For their part, various countries have, in effect, bid against each other to attract and retain businesses. Ireland is certainly one of those countries. (Washington state, of course, enacted the largest public subsidy of all with its extremely generous tax-avoidance package that benefits Boeing, as keen a political player as any. And guess what? The state is in dire need of additional revenues to pay for public schools, among other obligations.)

Apple fritters [u]

Sitting on an humongous wad of cash, Apple, Inc., can certainly afford to pay Ireland some $14 billion in taxes the European Commission says that it owes that country. The New York Times:

The decision, part of a broader crackdown on tax avoidance by the European Union commissioner for competition, slammed Ireland for providing illegal incentives that allowed Apple to cut its tax bill in the region to virtually nothing some years. The clawback of taxes — 13 billion euros, or about $14.5 billion, plus interest — is a record penalty by the union for such activities.

Ireland suffered mightily from the Great Recession. It can use the revenues. However, Apple’s Tim Cook said that the company would appeal the EU decision. That process could take years. Ireland may also appeal, asserting that it has a right to make whatever deals with corporations it wants.

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UPDATE Aug. 30, 2016:

Tim Cook publishes a letter.

All along

You will remember the great power play between the FBI and Apple over the former’s demand that Cupertino decrypt a particular iPhone in San Bernardino. Apple consistently refused, willing to take its chances in court. Rather suddenly, as matters were reaching a crescendo, the FBI dropped its demand. It had found an alternative way to extract the target phone’s contents.

Now, today, we learn that an Israeli firm has had the ability for some time to capture just about anything it wanted from an iPhone, exploiting three vulnerabilities of the device. NSO Group’s “software can read text messages and emails and track calls and contacts. It can even record sounds, collect passwords and trace the whereabouts of the phone user.” That’s from the New York Times.

This morning I updated my iOS gadgets with Apple’s software fix. You should do the same.

Sports’ Achilles heal

I’m talking about the officials. Professional sports and their athletes are top-of-class. But the refs who blow their whistles are struggling against impossible standards: getting it right all the time. Their failures to perform threaten the integrity of the games they officiate.

It has taken me a while to recover from the Warriors’ stupendous collapse, losing three straight after securing a 3-1 margin in the first four games. Officiating had something to do with their demise: ticky-tack fouls on the league’s MVP amidst glaring omissions for slaps across the heads of Golden State players bound for the hoop or simply trying to move from one spot to another on the floor. And don’t get me going on the lack of foul calls on offensive screens. It is evidently legal to physically redirect a defender from one zip code to another.

Of course, the biggest reasons for Warriors’ retreat to ignominy were the “Drunken Turkey” and the “Drunken Pogo-stick,” Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli, respectively. Barnes clearly forgot that making points involves putting the ball into the basket. Ezeli, despite his size and strength, shrinks like a wet noodle when near the goal.

Enough of that.

I turn now to baseball, a sport I played through my youth and into college and beyond. The game has changed dramatically since the 60s and 70s, my decades toiling on the mound. Pitching, for one, with the emphasis now on roles: starter, middle relief, set up, and closer. Gone are complete games, commonplace with Spahn, Marichal, and Ryan. Hitters, no matter how tall or small, swing for the fences, increasing strikeouts and frustrating fans yearning for success with runners in scoring position.

Baseball, to anyone who watches, is the most amenable of the major sports to the use of technology. High-definition cameras record every pitch and batted ball, yielding metrics that statisticians could only dream about in my day.

Take balls and strikes. The contest between the pitcher and the batter is the essence of baseball. Nothing happens until the ball is pitched and the hitter swings. This most crucial element depends on the ability of the home plate umpire to judge the location of a spheroid traveling nearly 140 feet per second. Regrettably, the umps miss far too many, calling balls strikes and vice-versa. Yet, before our television eyes we see a pitch tracker superimposed on the field of view. The technology records the precise location of the pitch to within a small fraction of an inch, far more accurately than the umpire—instantaneously.

The diehards will not hear of substituting already existing and working technology for the flawed judgment of umpires. They talk of an umpire’s personal strike zone. How preposterous. We could have all the accuracy we desire and eliminate the variabilities and defects of ordinary humans. After all, we are treated to replays that rely on ultra-high-def cameras and video equipment that reveal within fractions of an inch whether a fielder tagged some part of the runner sliding into a base and when.

I am not proposing to banish umpires from the field. The home plate umpire, for example, could don the inflated shield worn years ago. No need to get into a squat to gain a better view of the incoming pitch. Also, no need to be assaulted by a foul tip traveling 100 mph.

It will happen. Though, like economic fairness and security, not in my lifetime.

Apple surprise

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 9.29.31 AM

On the heels of a disappointing financial quarter, wherein Apple’s iPhone sales dipped and the company’s profits failed to meet analysts’ expectations, we find this chart from the Seattle Times. It shows R&D spending among major corporations.

I admit to being surprised by Volkswagen’s being at the top for three years running, and not so much that Samsung occupies the second slot for the same timeframe. Conspicuously absent from the top 20 was Apple—until last year, when it moved into the 18th position.

I’ll hazard a prediction. If Apple does not dramatically boost its R&D spending and concentrate on the “next best thing,” it will continue to lose ground to those who take research and development more seriously. What good is all that cash if you don’t use it to profitable effect?