The Macalope Weekly: Of trolls and straw men

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[Editors’ Note: Each week the Macalope skewers the worst of the week’s coverage of Apple and other technology companies. In addition to being a mythical beast, the Macalope is not an employee of Macworld. As a result, the Macalope is always free to criticize any media organization. Even ours.]

What a week! First, indie App Store developers get attacked by Lodsys over in-app purchases, then Mac users get attacked by the Mac Defender malware, and then Mac straw men get attacked by ZDNet and PCWorld! And as if that weren’t enough, today’s the Rapture. Phew! The Macalope’s going to need a nap after all this Apocalypse is over.

Stunning developments about boring patents!

The big story earlier this week revolved around several independent app developers who received legal threats from Lodsys, a company who claimed that the use of in-app purchasing violated its patent.

The Macalope read much of the main patent in question (there’s an hour of his life he won’t get back) and, to his admittedly untrained and very, very bored eye, it appears to describe a system for manufacturers to get feedback from users on the usability of embedded software.

If that doesn’t sound like “in-app purchases” to you, well, you’re not alone. One of the diagrams is even of a fax machine. Which, when you think about it, is charmingly naive. As if fax-machine, printer, and copy-machine manufacturers care about usability!

Oh, you fax-machine-manufacturer apologists and fanboys can deny it, but the evidence is in offices across the globe. They just. Don’t. Care. Which is probably how this patent ended up in the hands of a firm specializing in patent trolling.

Read more…

Of course, the Macalope’s not a patent attorney, nor does he play one on TV (not since his comedy sketch show on CourtTV got canceled)—and there are other patents involved. But the only connection between the patent and in-app purchases he could see was “A user communicates something back to a vendor from inside the software.” This is why the brown and furry one was surprised that, according to Lodsys (who, by the way, is very put out by how rude people are being to them, because who could see that coming?) Apple has already licensed its patent. Technically, that may be true; the patent used to belong to a company that licenses bundles of patents, with which Apple does have a relationship. But Apple may not even know it licensed the patent in question.

The folks in Cupertino are apparently “studying” the situation, so stay tuned for more exciting patent-related legal developments, intellectual-property porn aficionados!

Mac attacks on the rise

As if the Mac Defender Trojan wasn’t bad enough, now Mac users have to deal with another infestation. Yes, according to the Macalope’s research over the last week, Mac users are seeing a shocking rise in the number of straw-man attacks against them.

Let’s start with ZDNet’s Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, who says the good Mac users (who started using the Mac since the Intel switch) need to ignore the rest of us dangerous long-time Mac users, who may also be dope smokers (OK, he didn’t say that last part).

I’m truly staggered by the fact that people who have been around computers for decades and who are supposedly keeping their finger on the tech pulse are still clinging on for dear life to the notion that Mac is somehow immune of invulnerable to modern malware.

And the Macalope is staggered by people who assume those not running around with their hair on fire must be dangerous loonies with weird, made-up beliefs.

John Gruber, the guy behind the Mac site Daring Fireball says that those who dare to suggest that there’s a problem are crying wolf.

OK, Adrian, since you want to discuss allegories, let’s look at yours.

I’ve one word to describe these people who choose to ignore the real problems facing the modern Mac user and instead choose to live in the past - Dinosaurs.

Look around you, do you see any dinosaurs? No. Here’s why …

And then Adrian supplies a picture of a dinosaur-killing asteroid crashing into the Earth.


According to Kingsley-Hughes, the more proper reaction is to treat this Trojan like it’s the end of the world. Good to know!

Let’s check out PCWorld. They’re usually funny.

Tony Bradley says Mac Defender crashes the “Apple security Myth”.

Apple, and the Apple faithful would like to pretend that Mac malware doesn’t exist.

Well, in our defense, it’s really easy, because there isn’t very much of it! But, personally, the Macalope likes to pretend he’s a train! Whoo-whoo!

A certain Apple loyalist recently called me—and a variety of respected tech writers—out for having the audacity to point out that Mac OS X is not invulnerable and that the potential for Mac malware is steadily rising.

That link is to Daring Fireball. So, let’s break this apart. Bradley is accusing Gruber of being incensed by the suggestion that:

  1. OS X is not invulnerable.
  2. The potential for Mac malware is steadily rising.

The first accusation is unmitigated crap. Here’s a post by Gruber from all the way back in 2004 called, not coincidentally, Crying Wolf, which was about the MP3Concept Trojan that a number of news sites trumpeted as the first Mac Trojan attack, despite the fact that it was a proof of concept.

No one with any sense would ever claim that Macs are impervious to viruses, worms, or Trojan horses. Especially Trojans—which just about anyone with a 3-digit IQ could put together.

Gruber does not believe Macs are invulnerable. To the Macalope’s knowledge he’s never said he believes Macs are invulnerable. Let’s move on to the second accusation, which is more to the point. The Macalope doesn’t want to put words in Gruber’s mouth, but the horny one reads it more as “show me” than an out-and-out denial.

See, Gruber’s critics (well, this week’s crop of critics—the Macalope doesn’t want to make it sound like he only has a couple) love to link to that Wolf post (Ed Bott links to it every five minutes). None of them, however, mention the follow-up link to this post by Guy English:

In the story of the Boy That Cried Wolf the village ultimately paid the price for not being vigilant. The interpretation has always been to take it as a parable to improve personal behaviour but what I enjoy most about that tale is that it works both ways—there are two parties at fault: the attention seeker and those who took the cognitive shortcut of disregarding what the attention seeker was saying because they’d been wrong in the past.

Ohhh. When you put it like that, it sounds a little different. But, no, let’s pretend not to understand that, because then we can get in a few more whacks at the straw man.

Look, we don’t think Macs are invulnerable. It’s patently obvious that they’re not. As far as getting antivirus software, Charlie Miller, an honest-to-goodness Mac vulnerability expert, says it’s still probably not worth it for most people. So the Macalope will do the honest-to-goodness Mac vulnerability expert one better and suggest you do get some antivirus software. Why not when there are perfectly fine free options?

And Apple? Yeah, the Macalope completely agrees the company should be helping people clear this off their Macs and should do a better job getting in front of these things.

Is that so hard to understand?

Going nuclear

Speaking of getting in front of these things…

In response to Ed Bott’s multiple posts, innumerable Tweets and, the Macalope suspects, incessant ZDNet water cooler talk about Mac Defender, John Gruber coyly suggests that there’s one way Apple could effectively stop OS X Trojans forever: Prevent users from installing software that wasn’t from the Mac App Store, just like on iOS.

Ka-boom. (In more ways than one.)

Now, people (and certain mythical beasts) might not like that for a variety of reasons, but Apple, unlike probably anyone else, could do it. The Macalope’s long advocated Apple get ahead of security problems, because he’s never wanted to experience the living hell that Windows users have been in for years. (Apart from the interface, he means.) Admittedly, the idea of locking down the operating system didn’t really occur to him as the solution. But, hey, the Macalope wanted a solution, so it’d be a little lame of him to say “I didn’t mean that solution!”

As the horny one’s said, sometimes it takes an audacious vision of the future—and Apple certainly has one, whether this is part of its game plan or not.

But if it is part of the plan, we’d like an on/off switch. Just put it in the command line or something so the neophytes can’t find it.

OK, last person in the comments to say something about the trains running on time is a rotten egg!

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