Nicolas314

All my geeky stuff ends up here. Mostly Unix-related

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Sold my Soul

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now

My soul is now officially sold to Google since I signed up for Google Now on my Nexus 4. The terms and conditions initially scared me to death. Long story short: you sell your soul and give up the last shreds of privacy you might have had. I can only hope this data trail will never be used against me for nefarious purposes.

So how does it work and what do you gain in exchange for your soul? The price to pay is to leave your GPS constantly switched on. Your phone is also constantly listening to incoming Wi-Fi Access Points, even if you are not connected or trying to attach to one. This eats up your battery even faster than usual, but I could not spend a complete day without charging at least once anyway so this does not change much. What you gain is instant positioning no matter where you are. If you feel lost in a city (happens to me quite a lot), just switch on Google Maps and get an immediate fix. Coupled with contextual search, it means you can whip up your phone, whisper “bakery”, and get directions for the nearest one in less than a second. Nice.

What makes Google Now even nicer is the long list of heuristics they have attached to these data. With just a one-day data set, you can tell where I live and where I work since I repeatedly spend night-time without moving and day-time at work, moving a bit. You could also tell which are my favourite restaurants at work and how often I visit them. You can tell where I shop during the weekends, or how often I go get my kids at school. You could also track customers and partners I have business with, and know how often I go through interviews with headhunters to find another job. But I digress.

The Google guys have attached events to your presence in various locations and take advantage of this to offer you some advice. Let me give two examples:

Friend of mine has a guitar course on Wednesdays at 7pm. He usually takes a train to work but the guitar course is a bit off-center so he takes his car. One week after switching on Google Now, he got a message the second Wednesday around 6.30pm to warn him that with the current traffic conditions, he should leave now to be on time for his 7pm appointment.

I was on a trip to San Francisco last month. Two hours before my scheduled departure time, my phone rings an alarm telling me I should go now to be on time, together with traffic conditions and directions to the airport. Even better: on my first day there I slept in a hotel and went to work the next morning around 9am. The next day, I get an alarm from Google Now around 8.30am telling me that if I want to go to the same address as yesterday, I should leave now because of the traffic on I110. I was a bit dazed and looked at my phone with a large WTF across my face.

From your speed, Google Now also knows if you are walking, cycling, in a bus, in a train, on a plane, or in a car. At the end of each month you get a summary about how much you walked and cycled, which is a nice touch when you try to loose some weight. Next step would be to connect it to the device I stick on my chest when running so that I know exactly how many calories I loose per session.

Google Now is also connected to various city transportation sites. When you get close to a station, it automatically displays the time tables for the next coming buses or trains. It does not work with tramways in Paris but I was told subway and buses should be Ok.

When traveling abroad you get a card showing the time it is at home, another one providing exchange rates, and yet another one offering translations to local languages. As I was in London last week, the whole interface switched to a London theme, complete with Big Ben and Eye of London. That was a fun touch!

This is incredibly useful but also totally scary. It means my private data are stored somewhere in Google’s centers. What protects it for now is the fact that millions of people are tracked in the same way and I have no reason to appear as anybody special. What scares me is how these data could be one day used against me for whatever reason. Imagine a European dictatorship deciding that anybody who worked in the Bay Area is a potential terrorist, or simply a competitor who would like to know which companies I have visited there. Collecting data is harmless. The danger comes from who uses it and for which purpose, and I have absolutely no control over who accesses my data and what they want from it.

Once you get past these privacy points you do enjoy these location-based services. Even if these are just frivolous for now, I cannot help but think of a recent time when I did not have a frivolous smartphone either. Who can tell what these will bring us next?

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Written by nicolas314

Sunday 12 May 2013 at 1:10 am

Posted in android, google, mobile

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Through the looking glass

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SEO

I recently followed a two-day course about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) in Paris. Interesting topic: I learned a thing or two about Google indexing, and quite a lot about how Google is perceived by a crowd who now purely survives on them.

SEO agencies are companies that will help your web site come on top of Google results to increase visibility, sales, and fame in general. The course was about tips and tricks to get your site up the ladder.

To put it bluntly: Google is seen as a god by SEO agencies. Actually: not just a god but the Only God on the Web. The first 10 slides were all about Google’s market share in the search business and why there is no need to optimize your site for anybody else. If you catch Google’s eye you have the Netz in your Pocketz. Fair enough, the point is valid in most Western countries. Other search engines just have to follow suit.

There were mentions of Google sanctions for those who do not behave: if your site is not a good netizen you first get sandboxed, then blacklisted,which means the end of your presence at Mountain View and by extension, the rest of the world. Apparently this is worse than getting your Internet access revoked, at least for the marketing crowd. Digital death is permanent.

The speaker kept freely exchanging the words Google and Internet as if they were the same thing. It really made sense in all his sentences but it was kind of scary, a late realization for me that an ad company is now completely ruling the digital world.

Problem is: ads are a fairly twisted version of our reality. Ads are all about marketing and messages to convey, no matter how much you have to deform it to make it fit. Humans, on the other hand, tend to live in their daily reality.

Not an issue, really, but the fact is: the more I look around and the more I see web sites getting formatted in exactly the same way everywhere. The aim is of course to please data munchers and indexers. Go check any recent corporate web site on any topic and you will quickly see the pattern. Place your logo here, your content there, put a site map at the bottom, create mini-sites for dedicated topics, separate dynamic from static content using robots.txt. The web is slowly formatting itself for Google.

Some recommendations were just lame. Examples:

When describing your products, use vocabulary that relates to your field.
Er… Guys, I need to talk about software, do you really think I would diverge into a conversation about lawnmowers and beer?

When choosing a title, make it descriptive of the paragraph it introduces.
Oh really?

Pump up as many keywords as you can into your META tags, this attracts search engines.
Oh wow. After years of success with PageRank, Google has apparently reverted to the dumb algorithm that killed AltaVista. Yet you would think these guys are smart or something.
Edit: Thanks to Mathias for pointing out that the Google search guys made it clear: Google doesn’t use the keywords meta tag in web search

Do not use more than one H1 tag per page.
This one kinda stumped me. What? But the speaker insisted: using more than exactly one H1 tag per page may get you blacklisted. To be fair this is not the first time I heard that one. If you google “SEO H1 tag” you will find numerous appearances of this with no explanation of any kind. The whole thing got somewhat debunked by a Google search engineer in a video: More than one H1 on a page: good or bad? (hint: they don’t care).

The speaker also mentioned an interesting practice: if you want to appear as number one in Google results, you may also want to drive down your competitors, something like a reverse SEO. Techniques include hiring a large number of questionable domain names and replicate your competitor’s contents onto those fake sites, or posting links to your competitors inside forums dedicated to weird discussions. If you have the resources you can also setup fake shady web sites that add horrible links to your competitors. Your fake sites may get demoted in the end but there is currently no law preventing anybody from doing this. I guess you could always sue for slander but once damage is done, your SEO may have taken quite a blow anyway. “Calomniez, calomniez, il en restera toujours quelque chose.”

There is a feedback loop at work here:

Google tries to index the web with a very pragmatic approach. Figuring out a generic algorithm for page ranking can become incredibly complex with millions of special cases that can only be manually designed to work around various site structures.

Web designers want to be better indexed so they try to figure out the ranking algorithm used by Google to defeat it.

Google notices this, needs to thwart gaming attempts, adds some rules for ranking to avoid spamming. Back to square one.

This is the same cat-and-mouse play we have seen happening in our mailboxes with spam filters and spam senders fighting for mail ownership. Now it is happening on your corporate web sites too!

I just love when a billion people are trying to outsmart one another.

Hopefully this will not turn the web into a gigantic uniform mass of information structured in limited ways. Vive la différence!

Written by nicolas314

Saturday 8 December 2012 at 11:23 pm

Posted in google, seo

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Dance with the Yaks

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YakLet us do something useful tonight: Go 1.0 was just released, why not give it a try?

Finding something called go on Google is of course a tad difficult. The magic URL you want is http://go-lang.org. Good news everyone: they have packages for OSX! Thinking that running it directly from your Mac Desktop would be more comfortable, you download the pkg file and double-click it to install.

Done.

Almost.

Next:

  • Open terminal
  • vim hello.go
  • type in your hello world program

Something is wrong here: no vim syntax highlighting. No way you are going to use a modern editor without syntax highlighting. Ok, this is a new language and vim is probably outdated so update vim.

brew install vim won’t work. Brew tells you that Apple distributes vim with OS X, you can find it in /usr/bin. Ok, that is a very dumb answer. Maybe brew itself is outdated? Try a brew update/upgrade and see if things get better. Nope. Brew complains that your Xcode install is 4.2.1 and you need at least 4.3 to go any further. You already spent a whole evening installing Xcode less than a month ago but now you really want to get the latest and greatest, and you completely trust Apple. What could possibly go wrong?

Sigh. How do you upgrade Xcode? Launching it and browsing through menus does not bring anything. Quick Google search reveals you have to go through the App Store. Let me ponder that cause it bears repeating:

YOU HAVE TO GET THROUGH A FRACKING ANGRY-BIRDIE-SHITTY STORE TO GET A UNIX DEVELOPMENT ENVIRONMENT

Cool down. Click Install, log in with your Apple ID. Now where in hell did you put that ID? Forgot password? Send e-mail, open e-mail, change password, login again — 10 minutes.

Select Xcode in the apps, click Yeah, accept a zillion-page EULA, sign with your blood, and… nothing. Just a grey button saying Installation. At first you do not dare click the only element of user interface you have on screen by fear of unwillingly requesting multiple installations, but after a few minutes nothing moves so you click… but the button stays put. So you click again, and again, and end up on the Apple forums to see if anybody had the same issue.

Oh yeah: Xcode is installing Ok, you just did not notice the snail-paced progress bar in the tiny icon on your (hidden) dock. Judging from the current speed you still have 2-3 hours before Xcode finishes upgrading.

Ok, forget OSX. The damn thing is built around iTunes anyway, trying to do any development on this thing is bound to deliver endless frustrations, no need to loose more time on that topic.

Start up a distant Linux desktop, connect through VNC. Find out that VNC server and your local client have gone out of sync. Update/Upgrade your Linux box (30 packages) and find out that some GPG package keys are obsolete. Spend another couple of minutes trying to fix this, then finally update/upgrade your box. Log in through ssh/VLC.

Start up a web browser to download Go again. Find out that the default web browser likes to start an archive manager once a tgz has been downloaded. That is cool except for one thing: you never used this package manager before so you end up garbling unknown directories and downloading the same file over and over again.

Don’t loose your nerves, you are almost there. Quite.

Time to su, install go to /usr/local. Finally! A quick modification of your PATH and you are ready to explore a new language. Again:

  • vim hello.go

… but still no syntax hilighting. This time hunt for vim syntax support, and find out that go distributes vim config files with the main tarfile. Should have started with that but the later it gets the less you can think clearly. Copy those files to your .vim/ directory and lo and behold: you have your very first syntax-hilighted go hello world in front of you. Cool!

2 hours so far. And Xcode is still merrily downloading away.

Time to run your first go program:


% go run hello.go
Hello, world

Impressive. Now try to compile it:


% go build hello.go
% ./hello
Hello, world

Beautiful! Just curious: how big would this be?


% ls -l hello
-rwxr-xr-x 1271748 Mar 29 22:52 hello*

1.3 megs.

Yeah, you know what? I think I’ll read a book tonight. Old-fashioned dead tree does not require much more than sit and read.

Written by nicolas314

Thursday 29 March 2012 at 11:13 pm

Posted in fun, google, osx, yak shaving

Tagged with , , , ,

Fixing Google Music

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Throwing the ball at Google Music in my previous post was easy. The service is in beta after all and looking for ways to optimize user comfort, legal compliance and business model at the same time. Not sure there are obvious solutions to that, especially if you are not willing to enter discussions with the MAFIAA.

Does not mean that it is impossible though. Let’s try to fix Google Music, shall we?

Fix the initial upload

Uploading my whole music collection would require about 60 days full-time on my current DSL line. I tried uploading from other locations with better upload bandwidth but unfortunately Google Music Manager does not support HTTP proxies (yeah, beta). Why should I have to upload my music after all? I bet Google has half a billion users uploading Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon right now, this eats up tons of space for the same files over and over again, and uses bandwidth for nothing.

Guess what? Apparently Google did not have much choice, but it seems things have just changed: Cloud music is not a crime

Much better. Now I will just point the manager to my copious MP3 collection and let Google Music decide that I can access all of these from the cloud. Pretty cool! Hey wait: how does Google determine that a file on my disk is the same as a file in the cloud? Sheer MD5? Cool! This means that if I can produce a set of files with the same MD5 fingerprints, Google will automatically give me access to the real music files up there. Instead of downloading albums, I can now just download a set of files with the correct fingerprints, or whatever it takes for Google Music Manager to identify them as valid music files and give me access to them instantly. No need to upload but no need to own the real data either!

Going a bit further: there is actually no need to download files. I bet you can hack Music Manager into believing that you have a huge set of music files of your choosing and let it activate it all in the cloud for your account. The Music Manager is a piece of software running on my computer, I can hack the OS all I want to make it believe what I want. I give this a couple of months before somebody finds a way to do that.

Packaging it all could be made even more convenient:

  • Write a script that opens a Google account for you, get user help when the captcha is required
  • Automatically subscribe to Google Music, download Music Manager
  • Feed Music Manager whatever it takes to make it believe you have 20,000 songs on your computer
  • Instant access to 20,000 songs!
  • Profit!

We could easily imagine scripts to get instant access to 20,000 jazz pieces, or 20,000 classical recordings, or 20,000 best popular songs. You name it.

Even without having to create new Google accounts, you could have a script that bullshits Music Manager into giving you access to 20,000 songs of your choice on your existing account. You could offer dedicated themed radios too. The sky’s the limit.

Sure, you won’t be able to download the songs, but you will be able to listen to all the music you want from your Android phone or anything that has a flash-enabled web browser.

Not yet ideal but that would certainly make the service a lot more interesting :-)

Written by nicolas314

Tuesday 23 August 2011 at 1:50 pm

Google Music (beta) Review

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Been using Google Music for a couple of weeks now. Time for reviewing!

What is it about?

Google recently opened Google Music to compete against Amazon, Spotify, and Apple in general. Compared to other services the terms are pretty simple: you can upload up to 20,000 of your own mp3 songs at no cost (for now) and they are available to you anywhere you can call music.google.com from a browser. Google also offers an Android app that can sync with your music collection: choose the albums you want on your phone, put it on WiFi and let it download locally for offline listening.

Seems sweet huh?

Hmm… Only two weeks in and I am not convinced. Let me elaborate.

Beta Quirks

The service is still in beta, which seems to be the norm for all Google services, but this time it really feels like it is half-baked with profound design errors.

The only way you can upload music is through a desktop app. There is one for Windows, Mac and Linux. I installed the one for Mac, — a pretty big app for something that is just supposed to upload stuff — started it and got a configuration screen. I clicked a bit everywhere in hope of getting in control but there are very few things you can set in the panel, and once you click Ok the app disappears.

Ok so it wants to remain unseen like a background daemon doing its job without me noticing. That was friendly but I really want to be in charge and know what is happening. Guys this is my bandwidth!

As for upload options you are given a choice between:

  • Uploading your “Music” folders (? didn’t try)
  • Uploading your iTunes collection
  • Uploading a list of folders of your choice

I stupidly chose to upload my iTunes stuff, thinking Mac integration would be best with the Apple-sanctioned music handler. And then nothing. Waited a bit and noticed my bandwidth was being savagely maxed. I had to rummage through the System Preferences to find what in hell this thing was doing, and finally discovered it was courageously uploading all the podcasts I stored for later perusal on my iPod. No! No! I do not care about putting podcasts in the cloud! I can find them easily enough on their respective web sites, don’t need an extra copy with Google. So how do you stop this thing? Well, turns out you cannot, so I ended up uninstalling it altogether.

Ok, reinstall and this time choose Upload folder. Point it to a folderful of music and… wait. There are 20 Gigs in there, how long is this gonna take? Quick calculation: about three days. THREE EFFING DAYS?? Forget about web browsing when all the upload is gone.

But Ok, I’ll play. Eat my bandwidth, Google.

Three days later I got a nice set of 3,000 songs up there. Now what? Now I can proudly listen to a bunch of files I already had access to, by definition, at work and at home. Putting 8 Gb of it on my Android would not have taken me that long through USB. What is the service really?

I just cannot get any grasp as to why I would like to use this service at all. My personal music store at home runs in about half a terabyte of music of all possible styles, trends and periods, I will never be able to upload all of it to Google’s servers. And even if I could, what would be the point really? Transferring music to my phone is really easy (mount phone through USB, copy) and I only need to do it every couple of months or so. With USB thumb drives running now with 32Gbs of storage, it has never been easier to carry around tons of music and transfer them without difficulty anywhere I go. The “portable” aspect of having my music online just escapes me.

One point about storing things up in the cloud is that it remains there in case you loose all of your backups in a fire. But honestly: if my house burnt, my music collection would be the least of my worries. I bet if this happened I could rebuild a full music DB in a matter of days by just gathering music from friends. This could actually be a good opportunity to discover new stuff, come to think of it.

One useful feature could have been to be able to download your music back from the cloud. Putting everything up there could at least be useful to share songs with friends. But no: nothing is planned for music download. So much for sharing.

The web-based part tries to be as nice as possible but still has a way to go. Some uploaded albums were not recognized correctly: missing covers, or you end up with two half-albums sharing the same name, each one having half of the songs of the original album. Yuck. In terms of file formats you can only upload mp3. Forget ogg, flac, ape, or anything exotic. Barf.

Net result: I am not buying it. The service has less features than what I can do myself with a few euros worth of gear in my pocket. A “free” service that has already cost me more in electricity than what I could have achieved in five minutes over USB.

C’mon Google. We all know you can do better than that! Don’t let the MAFIAA ruin what could have been a great project.

NB: Google Music is currently only available through invitations and you need to be in the US to activate it.

Written by nicolas314

Saturday 20 August 2011 at 1:51 am